Hemingway as a footnote: Love and Ruin

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

In the early days of having a new baby, I wasn’t sure I would ever have the mental capacity to be able to read properly again. In the month after she was born, I finished two books. It was hard work and I’m not convinced I could tell you more about those books than “good.”

But then the days started to take some kind of regular shape and my brain started working a little again. Which is when I decided to read Paula McLain’s Love and Ruin.

I’m one of the only people (I think) that didn’t love The Paris Wife. I hated that the book was so much about Hemingway, rather than his wife who the book was supposed to be about. But then I really liked Circling the Sun about female aviator and all around sh*t disturber Beryl Markham. So even though Love and Ruin has to do with another of Hemingway’s wives, I decided that I did want to read it.

love and ruin

Martha Gellhorn is 28 when she travels to Spain, alone, in 1937 to cover the events of the Spanish Civil War. She lives in derelict hotel rooms trying to find her voice in the cacophony of male journalists reporting on what’s happening. She focuses on what the events mean to the people, the women and children in particular, who live in the affected areas.

And while her days are thus spoken for, her nights are spent with new friend Ernest Hemingway, the writer she most admires who she met back in Florida. Their friendship soon becomes something more and eventually, Martha becomes the third Mrs Hemingway. Ernest and Martha retreat to Cuba after the devastation they witnessed in Spain and spend months fixing up their little house there, a respite from the events unfolding in the world. But both are restless, each working on their next story.

When Martha finds journalistic success by writing about conflicts around the world, thus becoming more than just ‘Mrs Hemingway’, she must navigate the new realities of her marriage. Her husband isn’t used to sharing the limelight.

Love and Ruin reminded me of Z: A Novel. That book too was able to spotlight the wife of a famous man, to show the realities of living with such a talent and show Zelda’s story in her own right. Martha Gellhorn was herself a talented writer, a woman who reported on basically every major conflict over the SIXTY years of her career. Her marriage to Hemingway was a blip in her life, arguably one of the least interesting facets of her life and McLain is able to show that. Hemingway becomes a kind of footnote to Martha’s life, no small feat in my opinion.

I was hooked on this book immediately. The opening pages echoed sentiments that can be found today, of watching history happening and not being able to sit quietly by and watch.

It may be the luckiest and purest thing of all to see time sharpen to a single point. To feel the world rise up and shake you hard, insisting that you rise, too, somehow. Some way. That you come awake and stretch, painfully. That you change, completely and irrevocably – with whatever means are at your disposal – into the person you were always meant to be. […] There wasn’t any choice to be made, in the end. I would have to go to it, with my eyes wide open, and my hands open too, willing to pay the price.

I’m not sure that Love and Ruin will be found in too many people’s beach bags this summer (although it wouldn’t be the worst thing to read in the sun!) but I think people will find this one in the fall and feel like it was the perfect time to read it. Love and Ruin manages to balance the perceived frivolity of a love story with the gravity of current events. It was a powerful novel about finding one’s voice and vocation and I really enjoyed every page.

For once, I was sad to finish reading a book featuring Ernest Hemingway.


1920s Kenya: Circling the Sun

The Paris Wife was one of the first books my book club read together. And I just did not like it.

So I wasn’t sure at all if I was going to read Paula McLain’s new book, Circling the Sun. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this book and took it with me to the lake earlier this month.

It turned out to be the perfect place to read this absorbing story. I could not put it down and ended up finishing it in two sittings.


Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, someone I’d never actually heard of before. The novel opens with Beryl attempting to fly solo across the Atlantic and as she’s attempting to switch the fuel tanks her mind wanders back to her childhood in Kenya. Her father had bought a large piece of property as part of a plan by the government to get a settlement started near the railways in the area. He’s a great horse trainer, and has no problem living very simply but his English born wife and delicate son don’t feel the same way and when Beryl is 5, her mother leaves her to go back to England. Beryl is more or less left to her own devices, becoming friends with the local people, learning their ways of life, indulged to run around as the boys do because she is white.

As she grows up, Beryl constantly runs up against the conventions of her time: she should wear a hat and gloves, she should be educated at boarding school, she should ride side saddle, women can’t train horses, she should get married etc. Each time she bucks the trend and forges her own path, earning a training certificate for horses, probably the first woman to do so. When her father’s farm fails, she hastily jumps into marriage with a neighbour she barely knows, Jock. Because of her work training horses, she winds up hob nobbing with the Happy Valley set, a group of wealthy expats who thrive on the excess. Beryl becomes entangled in a relationship with safari hunter Denys Finch Hutton and Karen Blixen.

I had no expectations of this book so I wasn’t prepared to love it. I’ve been waiting for a female character like Beryl (who isn’t a character at all of course, she was a real person), someone who wasn’t content to just let her life go by the way other people wanted it to be, someone who grabbed her own destiny and lived by her own rules. She struggles with her decisions, she’s never convinced that she’s made the right ones but she tries her best and she never backs down. McLain does a fantastic job of creating the world Beryl lived in, of bringing these people back to life in all their flawed glory. 1920s Kenya blazes to life, bringing with it a reminder of the struggles it faced and the way it used to be, when big game was still plentiful and allowed to be free.

Quite simply, I loved this book. McLain said in the afterword that she had read Beryl’s book, West With the Night, and that it took a powerful hold of her imagination. Obviously I’m now on the hunt for this book that Hemingway himself called a “bloody wonderful book.”

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book. 


The Paris Wife

I just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It was my Book Club’s choice this month. The Paris Wife is the fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, told from her point of view. Even if you haven’t read any Hemingway (guilty) you’ve heard the stories and that should make The Paris Wife a compelling and interesting read.

But I just could not connect with Hadley. I tried. I really wanted to have something connect us. I thought at first that there might be, as she discovers her freedom after the death of her mother only to squander it by marrying Ernest. Then I thought maybe Hemingway would treat her like a queen, use her to inspire his work, his wife as muse. But he’s pretty horrible to her and leaves her out of all of his work.

It’s hard to know for sure how much of the story is based on actual events and how much is McLain weaving her own ideas into the narrative but in the novel, Hadley’s mother is a suffragette, working to make the world a better place for a woman to live in, so that she is her own person, no longer defined solely by her husband. And yet? Hadley’s entire existence is wrapped up in her husband. If he isn’t happy, she isn’t happy.

Maybe it’s just my 21st century-ness coming through but I expected more. Why couldn’t Hadley rail against Hemingway’s ill treatment of her? Why didn’t she embrace the life of a 1920s flapper? The inside cover has Hadley and Ernest being some amazing golden couple in 1920s Paris, hobnobbing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. The Hemingways run off to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, spend months in the German Alps, vacation in the French Riviera and yet it’s all hollow and meaningless.

McLain has used loads of idioms and slang that was most probably de rigeur in the 1920s but in this novel, I felt like it came off forced and fake. There’s just something about all the nicknames everyone has and the way everyone is a “chap” or a “fellow”, even the women, that really bothers me.

I wanted to like it. I tried to like it. But I just didn’t. It didn’t even leave me with any desire to rush out and get my hands on Hemingway’s great works. Normally these kinds of books spark some new interest in a person or a time, but this time I was just relieved to be finished.

Grade: C-

Stars: 2