May 24th, 2018

book talk // love and ruin.

This book centers around the life of Martha (Marty) Gellhorn — it chronicles her journalistic rise, beginning with the months following a tepid reception of her first novel, What Mad Pursuit (I read a bit about the novel here, where it was described as the “futile lapping of a surgeless lake, the procession and recession of climax and anti-climax, fraught with emptiness”). After a failed love affair and a failed novel, Gellhorn returns home to see her father on his deathbed, lick her wounds, and begin writing a collection of short stories, The Trouble I’ve Seen, based on her time with FERA during the Great Depression. She worked with Dorothea Lange to document the struggles of the American people during this time period, gaining access to places often barring women, and, in turn gaining Eleanor Roosevelt’s respect.

Eventually, she meets Hemingway in Key West. They agree to go to Spain together and report on the Spanish Civil War, where, amid the shellings and air raids, their friendship (he initially calls her “daughter,” which made me cringe a little) becomes a romantic affair. Gellhorn is no stranger to love affairs with married men, having had another while living in Paris, and seems to lose little sleep over the fact that Hem is already married. Theirs is a relationship set against tragedy, a safe place for those seeking comfort, and neither of them anticipate it will last.

Gellhorn is drawn to Hemingway’s magnetism, she admires him, and they begin to live together on and off for several years. However, she also chafes against his domineering nature, his need to control her and be constantly in the spotlight. While Hemingway seemed to admire her aspirations and bravery in the abstract, after she agrees to marry him, he becomes petulant and needy — she won’t give him a daughter, she selfishly leaves him for weeks at a time to pursue her career, she wants to explore more widely than his go-to fishing spots, she neuters the tomcats. The timeless struggle of females who seek to posses an identity independent of their husbands echoes loudly.

Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?

When she refuses to stop reporting during World War II, Hemingway takes over her job at Collier’s, usurping her masthead and expense account, attempting to use his clout to block her travel. Despite all this, Gellhorn was the only woman at Normandy on D-Day and she was among the first correspondents to report on Dachau.

We know from the beginning that the relationship will end in “ruin,” but Gellhorn was the only one of Hemingway’s wives who chose to leave him, rather than the other way around — and it seems he never forgave her for it. Gellhorn also resisted publishing under the Hemingway name and hated when publications conflated their writing styles, implying she was the second best Hemingway. Her inability to live in Hem’s shadow, and the fact that when she left on assignment for World War II he immediately found a new woman to marry, allowed her to cleanly walk away and pursue her own path — and I found myself breathing a loud sigh of relief.

In moments, I’d been kicked out of love and was alone again.

I related quite a bit to Marty Gellhorn. She was flawed, she made mistakes, but she was also resilient, ambitious, career-driven, and very empathetic with a relentless wayward spirit. She knew this wouldn’t make her a good wife or mother, but she loved Hemingway and wanted to try. The settings in McClain’s novels are always lush, but her description of the Finca in Cuba made me long for such an escape. A writer’s paradise complete with daiquiris and a saltwater pool. I was more heartbroken when Gellhorn had to give up her beautiful home (which she bought) than when the relationship inevitably crumpled.

I loved being in Marty’s head, her first-person accounting of war was interesting, as was her unconventional (for the time) perspective on love / relationships. I found it odd that McClain focused in so closely on her relationship with Hemingway, even providing passages from his perspective, when Gellhorn was, arguably, more interesting than him. I suppose her coming-of-age in the literary world did happen in tandem with the rise and fall of this particular romantic entanglement; but, it’s important to note that she did not rise because of Hemingway, rather in spite of him.

I like McClain as an author. The Paris Wife wasn’t my favorite, but I really enjoyed Circling the Sun and will probably ready anything else she publishes in the fictional memoir genre.

Rating: 4/5
Recommended for:
those who enjoy historical fiction or have more than a passing interest in Hemingway, strong women, or strong liquor.