War is hell, and two writers under one roof make their own hell — these are the themes of “Love and Ruin,’’ Paula McLain’s new novel, which reimagines the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, the indomitable war correspondent, Martha Gellhorn. And it serves as a kind of follow-up to McLain’s 2011 bestseller, “The Paris Wife,’’ which traced Hemingway’s transition from his first wife, Hadley Richardson, to his second, Pauline Pfeiffer, the current Mrs. Hemingway as the book opens.
Among McLain’s’ historical portraits of feisty women who fall for feisty men, Gellhorn holds her own. Notwithstanding such bad luck as good looks and long legs, limiting her to women’s magazines, she wants to be a serious journalist. What’s a gal to do? Drop out of Bryn Mawr and set out for Paris, write a novel, and have a five-year affair with a married ex-lover of Colette.
When that ends, the only cure is sunshine. In a Key West bar, she meets Hemingway, older, married, the father of three sons. Hemingway pursues her — those legs! — inviting her to Spain to cover the civil war. Through connections, she finagles press credentials. Although her editor warns, “War isn’t any place for a young woman,” soon enough she and Ernest are drinking it up in Madrid.
Still, when she witnesses a child killed by an exploding shell, “[s]omething in me cracked,” she declares. “Spain was a chance to find my voice as well as my compass.”
Not to mention finding Ernest. Despite their disparities, she’s smitten. Like Rick and Ilsa’s we’ll-always-have-Paris, Ernest and Martha have Madrid and “this awful marvelous war.” They get Cuba, too. After Spain falls, Gellhorn joins Ernest there.
Though she’s roughed it in war zones, Gellhorn draws the line at Ernest’s hot mess of a hotel room. The night she trips over a cured ham on the floor, she decides she needs a space of her own. She buys a farm outside Havana. “And so began the season of two writers writing under one roof.”
These scenes of professional rivalry and seesawing imbalance are some of McLain’s best. If Gellhorn can’t match Ernest’s genius, she could “match him in terms of tenacity.” Cuba becomes their paradise; they write in the mornings, then swim, serve daiquiris to hordes of hangers-on, roast pigs while Rome burns — or rather, Nazis march on Europe.
Of course, paradise never lasts. “To report on a war, you have to be where the war is,” she explains, and heads off to Finland. Ernest stays behind to wait for his divorce and to finish “For Whom The Bell Tolls,’’ a book to live long after “all this chaos and senseless death.”
McLain does a good job on the accommodations a woman makes for a man, how the less famous writer obliges the famous one. Until they don’t. Gellhorn dotes on Hemingway’s three sons while ignoring his wish to have a daughter together. But when Gellhorn’s new novel tanks and his hits the stratosphere, she feels “reduced . . . to Ernest’s concubine.”
Despairing that “his books . . . roared into the world while mine faltered,” she vows to put her work first the way Hemingway does. “I haven’t ever seen a woman stand up to Papa like you do,” Ernest’s oldest son remarks.
After four years together, they marry. In their Manhattan honeymoon suite, alas, the continuous round of parties, drinks, photographers, and interviewers to celebrate the great man overwhelms his new bride. “Try as I might there was no stepping out of his shadow,” she grumbles. What to do but head for yet another war zone. “Ernest was holding court, and I was on the move. We were both exactly where we needed to be.”
Not quite. Back home months later, she’s fed up; Ernest fills the Cuba house with cats; his drinking increases; he never changes his clothes. They fight. Ernest calls Martha selfish; he resents her ambition. As love turns to ruin, she hits the road again, this time as the only woman to cover D-day. Soon she hears rumors that Ernest is holed up in Paris with Mary Welsh, understudy for wife number four. The marriage is over.
Though much of this material is familiar from other memoirs and biographies, McLain does a good job of weaving factual details into a well-constructed narrative that is marred, unfortunately, by pedestrian passages. Clichés abound: “facing the music,’’ “lick my wounds,’’ “smooth as glass,’’ “every cell in my body vibrating,’’ and so on. Adverbs clutter the sentences, an over-embroidery which Hemingway would disdain. The sex scenes display an all-too-familiar earth-moving, gee-whiz quality. No matter. McLain’s legions of fans will relish the inspiration of a gutsy woman who discovers she doesn’t need a man at her side, after all.
LOVE AND RUIN
By Paula McLain
Ballentine, 400 pp., $28
The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.Mameve Medwed has published five novels, many essays and reviews, and lives in Cambridge. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.