The author of The Paris Wife returns to the subject of Ernest Hemingway in a novel about his passionate, stormy marriage to Martha Gellhorn—a fiercely independent, ambitious young woman who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century.
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.