And yet here we were, anyway, hurtling through the dark toward each other under a hundred million stars, and set to collide disastrously. Logic wouldn’t save us and neither would the dwindling pile of days. We had all the time in the world to make a terrible mistake.
Ernest Hemingway was stormy weather, why should a love affair with the man be any less tumultuous. This is a gorgeous story about Hemmingway and his lover and third wife Martha Gellhorn. She knows falling in love with the married father of two sons will spell disaster and yet it is inevitable, their mutual need undeniable. At the beginning of the novel, Marty is a disappointment to her father, living a little too carefree for the times. Passionate about a literary career, and certainly not one to settle down and live the life of the ‘little woman’, her writing comes off as vulgar to her father who shames her. A distance opens between them, if war is a shadow so is the shame that remains in her heart after her father’s death. Martha travels to Madrid to write about the Civil War, at great risk to herself, and is moved by the horrors and struggle of the people. Ernest falls in love not just with her youth and beauty but her hunger and courage to the cause.
Hemingway and his women often leave a sour taste in the mouths of wiser ladies, but it’s not hard to imagine how someone as brilliant as Gellhorn could fall under the spell of her idol. She was in awe of him when they met, already a fan and when his attention turns to her, well she caved. It’s not hard to think of his long-suffering wife Pauline Pfeiffer with compassion, birthing his children, steering Ernest as well as only the best of women could and then left for someone younger. She too was a journalist when she met Ernest, and its interestig to note while she supported Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, he supported the Republicans. A point of contention? Hemmingway needed his woman to understand his passions, to support his causes and Gellhorn was on his side, using the might of her words to bring attention to the suffering. She is born to passion in his embrace, but she notices the early warning signs about Ernest, the weather within him, the resentment and sulking, over exaggerated anger when he isn’t getting his own way.
Martha was a bold woman, meeting Ernest opened doors, it cannot be denied, but she had to claw her way to write as a woman during the war. Suffering the dismissal of critics simply for being tied to him and their forbidden love, she was blasted in reviews. Ernest wasn’t her sole passion, she traveled all over the world to write about pressing issues as a great war correspondent, writing on every conflict during her long career. She was unorthodox, an original and if you detest her for stealing a married Hemingway then she redeems herself by choosing her work rather than giving in to his demands that she be still, anchor herself where he wills her. If it meant being punished for her comings and goings, so be it. She dared to leave Ernest, and there is no return to love after that. Everything in Hemingway’s life is beautiful so long as his career is flourishing and Martha is there when he needs her. Ernest was a connoisseur of women, that’s no secret but he was also tortured, and one always wonders how someone tries to fill themselves to quiet the noise in their own mind. He surrounded himself with exciting people, most alive in dangerous situations (an adrenaline junkie?) had a bottomless need for adventure and yet at times his mood would turn and he’d close up into himself. Could he have loved more than one woman, or the ideal of her, why not? It’s his staying power that is questionable. His family certainly has struggles with mental illness, and there is so much conflicting information out there, was he bipolar, or was it possibly head traumas that one thing is certain, he had inner battles and how could that not have been a source of trouble in his love life? Maybe turning to fresh new love was running away as much as his escape to Key West or wherever he went to get away from his family.
At the start of their affair, Martha desperately needs his approval. It was a ‘wonderful and awful’ love. In the raw days, she is of use, she fits in with the people who surround Hemingway and even in the moments when she feels small, and monstrous things are happening around her, this is still the life she would never trade. “I had said yes. And yes always came with a price.” Even if he belonged to someone else, she could not let him go. She is as hooked as the many fish he catches. When they are away from the madness of the world, in Cuba (their own little heaven), the days seem to stretch before them in this paradise. But time will feast on the lovers, as it does us all, and the world won’t be kept at bay. When Time magazine takes a bite out of Martha, diminishing her success Ernest is concerned only with himself. It is the beginning of their love souring, it is as if he must eclipse all those who love him and she is no exception.
Martha went on to have a full, rich life as a war correspondent after her marriage to Ernest. If you’ve read anything about Gellhorn, she is quoted as saying feminists “did a disservice to women branding us as ‘women writers’.” Her argument being, no one says ‘men writers’ about material written by men and yet she was a trailblazer, herself a woman working in a field dominated by men in the 20th century, and it cannot be ignored that the war zones weren’t exactly teeming with women. She lived her life as she wanted it, known to be a prickly, irritable person, intolerant of ‘bores’, a fighter for humanity and yet not a great lover of people individually. A private person. She was so much more than just ‘Hemingway’s lover.’ This is a woman who stowed away on a hospital ship to come ashore on D-Day, how is that for feminism? If Hemingway was her idol in her youth, she outgrew him.
We’re not supposed to care much for the ‘other woman’, are we? The funny thing is, I cared more about her than her idol (Ernest). Anyone could see that Martha and Ernest’s paradise wouldn’t last, because his heart was fickle, he had his own demons within’, his need was all consuming and she was becoming a woman who would not be confined by love anymore than society’s expectations. Was it her awe of him, the war raging around them, or selfish desires that pushed them together, who can say? It was passionate while it lasted, and they loved each other enough to marry, he took Martha as his wife 3 weeks after his divorce from Pffiefer was final. Martha was a woman who could never be happy with a diluted life. That she should choose between Ernest and a career was the end of it all. Love that wants to swallow a woman, make her forget her outside interests and dreams was not a love for Martha. Yet, when they first collide and love explodes it sets them afire, for a time.
Paula McLain wrote a beautiful love story not just about Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn’s affair and marriage, but a love for one woman’s purpose in life that eventually surpassed what she shared with Hemmingway. Yes, read it!
Publication Date: May 1, 2018