Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain

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Now….Anyone who knows me well can tell you that there was no chance I would miss out on reading Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain. Naturally, I’d already read The Paris Wife a few years back, which outlined the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Hemingway has always been an enigma to me. You love him, you hate him, you love to hate him. He can make the most poignant and provocative sentence you’ve ever read, but the most infuriating storyline…in the same novel. His personal life was fascinating…multiple marriages and strained relationships with his family members… famous friends including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein… and even some pretty impressive enemies.

Hemingway liked to stir things up. He liked humanity at it’s most raw. He was a war correspondent and had communist friends in Cuba which put him on the FBI watchlist in the end of his life. He went on safaris and traveled the world. He loved cats and liked to referee boxing matches in his spare time. He drank like a fish. When he wrote, he was voracious and wrote on a nearly religious schedule… In his Key West home, he had a skywalk which lead from the second level of the house, across the backyard to his office which was situated in the upper level of an outbuilding. His writing space was sacred.

The Paris Wife was my first dip into Hemingway-infested waters. Since then I have read several of his novels and visited his home in Key West. Mrs. Hemingway, by Naomi Wood, outlines the stories of the 4 Mrs. Hemingways, in separate parts, and Villa America, by Liza Klaussman, is written about Sara and Gerald Murphy, whose stories intertwined with the expats who ran in Hemingway’s crowd…

So now we finally get to the novel at hand. Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain. The author interestingly decided to skip over his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, and move on to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn. Martha was a war correspondent and an author in her own right, although her fiction never broke any records in fame or popularity. She was younger than Hemingway and she came upon him in Key West where he was living with his wife and two of his kids. He became her mentor and then it melted, as you would expect, into an affair and eventually another marriage (as Hemingway was prone to do).

I expected Love and Ruin to be my favorite novel of the year. Gellhorn is fascinating and she did things that were unheard of for women of her era. She was salty and brave and beautiful and bold. I wanted her to chew up Hemingway and spit him into the wind, leaving him dazed and confused and blinking in the sunlight as she walked away.

Unfortunately, Love and Ruin fell a little flat for me. And I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to discuss this subject by commenting. In the end of the day, Martha seemed unsure about what she wanted throughout the entire book. She was noncommittal and flaky and it was hard to even understand why she would want to marry Hemingway in the first place. He didn’t come off as particularly seductive or even provocative in the novel. I couldn’t tell if the novel was trying to make her seem completely lacking in libido or sexual prowess, or if it was trying to show that Martha didn’t go out of her way to try and steal Hemingway from his wife. Either way it somehow made both Hemingway and Martha into boring, indecisive people…One of whom was going to move on successfully, and one of whom was falling into a bottle.

So I think McLain has lost this reader for good. I’m sure she won’t miss me. But she had the chance to do something amazing with this novel and it was lackluster and depressing, with none of the draw that I hoped for in the love story. And I never write bad reviews. This may be my first one in years.

Very disappointing novel.



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