Meeting Ernest Hemingway was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Martha Gellhorn.
But perhaps she engineered their first encounter herself. I’ve always thought it was no accident that Gellhorn, an accomplished international journalist, turned up in Sloppy Joe’s, the favorite Key West bar of the young celebrity novelist. To show up on purpose would not be out of character for Gellhorn, the heroine of Paula McLain’s latest biographical novel, “Love and Ruin.”
In McLain’s telling, Martha and Ernest are drawn to each other by their passion for Republican Spain, which is fighting Franco for its democratic existence. Against this backdrop, the two are soon in love, though Ernest is still married to Pauline Pfeiffer, the “other woman” who was the doom of his first marriage, to Hadley Richardson.
McLain’s 2011 novel about Hadley, “The Paris Wife,” struck a deep chord with readers. Hadley and Ernest made their home in Paris in the 1920s, a magical time and place for a magical couple. “The Paris Wife” portrays Hadley as the soul of gentleness and innocence. It’s a romantic tale and a compelling one. Readers can’t help rooting for Hadley and bemoaning the disappearance of their Eden.
This new novel about Ernest’s relationship with Martha is unlikely to evoke the same kind of response. Martha is another finely etched heroine, but of an entirely different sort. She is independent and ambitious, and her career comes first — something she learns the hard way. In “Love and Ruin,” we see Martha determined not to be an appendage to her famous partner, though she is not above using her connection to situate herself advantageously.
Martha says that from the start her quest has been “to live my own life, and not anyone else’s.” But she is mightily distracted by the forceful presence of a handsome writer at the top of his game and the prospect that together she and Ernest could form an unbeatable journalistic and literary team.
McLain tries to spin this into an attempt to “have it all” — she anachronistically uses those very words — and, I’m afraid, has her protagonist “lean in.” Unfortunately, in her attempt to make the story timely and to set Martha up as a relatable heroine, she sometimes slips into melodrama. At one point, for instance, Martha says that Ernest’s “hands reached inside my field jacket and he kissed me in a crushing way. I couldn’t breathe, and didn’t care.” Martha will come to learn that being able to breathe is not a negotiable condition.
Martha and Ernest marry only in the last third of the novel, almost in time for her to know better. There are plenty of red flags: Ernest’s slovenliness, his liquor consumption, his towering sense of entitlement and his occasional roughness with Martha, as when he calls her a “whore” for planning a lecture tour promoting the Spanish cause in the States. The writing is on the wall when Martha takes an assignment to cover the Red Army in Finland, thereby breaking a not-so-mock agreement never to leave Ernest alone to pursue a story.
Though some idyllic months follow at Finca Vigía, the Hemingways’ tropical bungalow outside Havana, the end of their marriage is in view. Indeed, Ernest complains that he has “married one woman and now seems stuck with another.” When Martha calls in the local vet to fix some of the tomcats hanging around, Ernest accuses her of trying to emasculate him.
McLain successfully turns Martha’s story into a romantic quest and Martha into a romantic heroine — though not a traditional one. Her active agency in her own fate offers a more attractive trajectory than that of Hadley, who just gets left behind. The book closes with Martha at Dachau and Belsen just before V-E Day. Freed from her connection to Ernest, her life is subsumed into a larger struggle, her presence — passionate and ambitious — established on a world stage.
Mary Dearborn’s most recent book is “Ernest Hemingway: A Biography.”
By Paula McLain
Ballantine. 388 pp. $28