Having focused on Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, in The Paris Wife (2011), McLain now turns to his third, writer Martha Gellhorn.
As she did with Hadley and with Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun (2015), McLain closely follows previously published biographical material to create her novel. A journalist who landed with the troops at Omaha Beach and the author of books of fiction and nonfiction as well as a play, Gellhorn is considered one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. But when she meets Hemingway in late 1936 in a Key West bar at the beginning of this novel, she's in her late 20s and has just published her first book. Ernest is 10 years older and still married to second wife Pauline. Having been burned by an affair with a married man, Martha insists that her deepening friendship with Ernest is purely platonic. The reader is not fooled despite their banal, Hemingway-esque dialogue. Ernest’s plan to travel to Spain to cover the civil war there ignites Martha’s sense of purpose and adventure. With his encouragement, she lands in Madrid, where she finds her calling as a journalist—the scene in which she witnesses a child’s death is genuinely powerful—and the two writers begin an affair. Once Franco wins, Martha joins Ernest for an idyllic life in Cuba that’s filled with writing and romance. Pauline remains in Key West, that marriage in tatters. But by the time Martha marries Ernest in 1940, she worries that her husband’s oversized personality, magnetism, and talent might crush her own spirit and ambition. They don’t, but his selfish childishness, competitiveness, and vindictiveness make their relationship untenable. Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man.
This elegant if oddly bloodless narrative is a good introduction for those who know nothing of Gellhorn, but it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in that writer’s own memoir and published letters.