The book is fueled by her questing spirit, which asks, Why must a woman decide between being a war correspondent and a wife in her husband’s bed? If we ignore the white whale that is Ernest, this novel questions how to combine romantic desire with a drive to live for yourself; to work. It’s a quandary, both for McLain and her fiery protagonist, and the solution isn’t easy. McLain has employed impressive primary and secondary sources, including Gellhorn’s letters, before letting loose her fictionalized heroine. In a propulsive novel filled with acts of writing a war-torn century, Gellhorn’s life gets the narrative lion’s share, yet Hemingway competes for our attention — which is ironic, because it seems the intention of this book was to center her, not him. But here’s another irony: Gellhorn’s growing dilemma over her husband’s behavior is the novel’s most interesting strand, partly because it throws her need to write into stark relief ... McLain’s descriptive style is occasionally a little pedestrian and generalized for Gellhorn’s unusual life, at times her voice not as searing as the spectacles she witnessed. It’s a sparkier read when they’re together, McLain handling the plot of a literary love affair with pace and skill, careful to give both parties credit despite neither being natural fits for wedded bliss ... in this highly engaging novel, McLain finds an uncomfortable answer to the dichotomy in her title: Leaving behind the ruin of love is better than contorting yourself to fit inside it, and never more so than if you are a woman.
McLain has perfected her dramatic and lyrical approach to biographical fiction, lacing Marty’s ardent inner life into electrifying descriptions of place and action ... McLain brings forth the deepest, most ringing elements of both 'love and ruin,' the two poles of Marty and Ernest’s tempestuous relationship, a ferocious contest between two brilliant, willful, and intrepid writers. McLain’s fast-moving, richly insightful, heart-wrenching, and sumptuously written tale pays exhilarating homage to its truly exceptional and significant inspiration.
I wish there were more you-are-there, front-line moments with Gellhorn in Love and Ruin. She rang the alarm bell early on Hitler and was committed to describing the personal stories of those caught up in conflict ... It can be weird, if titillating, to eavesdrop on imagined, intimate conversations between famous people, but McLain’s dialogue, is, as Hem might say, good and true. She captures the passion Gellhorn and Hemingway feel for each other, and the slow erosion of trust on both sides ... McLain captures the alternate joy and angst both writers experience as they wrestle with their work and with their competing agendas.
This novel is important not only as historical fiction but also as a reminder of the challenges that faced career-minded women such as Gellhorn in the mid-20th century, and the risks — both professionally and personally — that were required to be a journalist during the rise of fascism and World War II ... McLain’s strengths as a novelist are formidable, especially her ability to evoke a strong sense of time and place ... Fast-paced and confessional, we get of glimpse of Gellhorn’s emotions and her struggles ... McLain is also a master at ending chapters that make you want to turn the page and see what happens next — even if you are familiar with the Gellhorn-Hemingway story ... She addresses the Hemingway mystique in a way that is believable but accessible ... Love and Ruin will certainly ensure that Gellhorn is not a footnote, although it does underscore the impossibility of minimizing Hemingway’s presence in her life and American letters.
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 ... McLain successfully turns Martha’s story into a romantic quest and Martha into a romantic heroine — though not a traditional one.
Gellhorn was a woman of wit and fire, but you wouldn't know this from McLain’s fictional version. Here, Gellhorn is depicted either as a panting girl, blushing and desperate, or a discouraged lover, upset at being a mistress and terrified of losing a man she doesn’t really possess ... Gellhorn’s own writing is barely a blip in Love and Ruin. McLain's scenes of Marty and Hem at war, and in the second home Gellhorn makes for him in Cuba, are often richly and [sic] well written. But for Martha Gellhorn to be made immature, dispassionate and even tiresome is fiction indeed. The glimmer of her admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt, based upon the friendship that Gellhorn had with the Roosevelts, and the brief scenes between Martha and Eleanor make one yearn to read about that part of her life instead.
Love and Ruin, a stew of biography and speculation, portrays him as a chauvinist and a bully of the first order. To know him was to love him. To know him better was to get over it. The novel’s prose is studded with cut-rate Hemingway terseness and labored similes ... It is clear that Ms. McLain wants to give Gellhorn her due...Love and Ruin roars to life at such moments, but even the high points are marred by what reads like the self-conscious musings of a schoolgirl’s diary.
These scenes of professional rivalry and seesawing imbalance are some of McLain’s best ... McLain does a good job on the accommodations a woman makes for a man, how the less famous writer obliges the famous one. Until they don’t ... Though much of this material is familiar from other memoirs and biographies, McLain does a good job of weaving factual details into a well-constructed narrative that is marred, unfortunately, by pedestrian passages. Clichés abound. Adverbs clutter the sentences, an over-embroidery which Hemingway would disdain. The sex scenes display an all-too-familiar earth-moving, gee-whiz quality. No matter. McLain’s legions of fans will relish the inspiration of a gutsy woman who discovers she doesn’t need a man at her side, after all.
McLain’s ability to base a work of fiction on real people is nothing short of superb. Readers may pick up Love and Ruin because of their obsession with Ernest Hemingway, but they’ll fall in love with it because of Marty Gellhorn.
This elegant if oddly bloodless narrative is a good introduction for those who know nothing of Gellhorn, but it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in that writer’s own memoir and published letters.