Novelist takes another look at Hemingway’s loves, marriages

Paula McLain is a popular author specializing in historical fiction. Her books “The Paris Wife,” about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson Hemingway, and “Circling the Sun,” about adventurer and aviator Beryl Markham, have sold 2 million copies, so her readers are anxiously awaiting another release from her.

And she delivers — to her fans and to Hemingway scholars — with “Love and Ruin,” in which McLain returns to the life of Ernest Hemingway. This time, she focuses on the painful ending of his second marriage to Pauline Pfeiffer and Hemingway’s life with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, who was a respected author and highly touted war correspondent.

First, McLain takes the reader to Key West in December 1936, where Gellhorn and her mother are vacationing after the Gellhorn patriarch passed away. It is at Sloppy Joe’s that Gellhorn first meets Hemingway, and her first impressions are impressive: “His legs were brown and muscled as a prizefighter’s. His arms were brown, too, and his chest was broad, and everything about him suggested physical strength and health and a kind of animal grace.”

This suggests that McLain might have taken poetic license with some of the details of Gellhorn’s life. Gellhorn biographer Caroline Moorehead reports that Gellhorn witnessed a rather unkempt Hemingway at Sloppe Joe’s, but “Love and Ruin” is, of course, a novel, so McLain has the freedom to pen her passage that way.

In the novel and in life, Gellhorn is an accomplished reporter and author, and McLain highlights Gellhorn’s accolades throughout “Love and Ruin.” In addition, Gellhorn is independent and very connected. In fact, she has the ear of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and assists Hemingway and director Joris Ivens preview “The Spanish Earth,” a pro-Spanish Republic film, at the White House. After the preview, the first lady takes Gellhorn aside and provides the following advice: “I hope you’ll keep your head about you. Hemingway seems a complicated man,” but at this point Gellhorn believes she is strong enough to handle his mercurial moods.

McLain duplicates the scenes in which Gellhorn reports alongside male reporters in Madrid where she is covering the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s magazine. One of the reporters is Hemingway, who is reporting for NANA: North American Newspaper Alliance, and McLain writes intimately about Gellhorn and Hemingway’s physical affair that begins at the Hotel Florida there: “He reached to draw his hand through my hair, pushing it to one side and exposing the base of my neck. ... In a moment, before I could begin to catch up, he was kissing me there, lightly as a moth might touch down.” Then McLain uses the sounds of war to juxtapose the themes of love and war: “ ‘We’re going to have to run for it,’ Ernest said. We had come to an exposed part of the street, 25 yards or so between the cover of ruined buildings in a neighborhood gutted by bombing.” Readers understand at this point that Hemingway is breaking Pfeiffer’s heart, and McLain details the heartache, culminating with their divorce.

Gellhorn responds to the destruction of Hemingway’s second marriage by becoming an exemplary stepmother to Hemingway’s three children and becoming the driving force behind the purchase of the Finca Vigia, the couple’s house in Cuba. McLain’s thorough research is further displayed when she writes about the nickname Hemingway gives Gellhorn — Rabbit, which is also the nickname that Robert Jordan gives Maria in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Wisely, McClain includes the event that may have ended their marriage: a tussle over the D-Day assignment for Collier’s magazine that Hemingway purloins from his wife, displaying Hemingway’s competitiveness and selfishness.

Throughout “Love and Ruin” McClain creatively traces history through the lens in which she writes — historical fiction — displaying just how unctuous Hemingway can be, and just how resilient Gellhorn can be. But like all Hemingway love affairs, the Gellhorn-Hemingway union may just end in ruin.

If you are looking for one of the best books this summer, enjoy McLain’s “Love and Ruin,” a contemporary classic.

Wayne Catan teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.

“Love and Ruin”

by Paula McLain;

Ballantine ($28)