In 1937, twenty-eight-year-old Martha travels alone to Madrid to report on the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and becomes drawn to the stories of ordinary people caught in devastating conflict. She also finds herself unexpectedly—and uncontrollably—falling in love with Hemingway, a man already on his way to becoming a legend. In the shadow of the impending Second World War, and set against the tumultuous backdrops of Madrid, Finland, China, Key West, and especially Cuba, where Martha and Ernest make their home, their relationship and professional careers ignite. But when Ernest publishes the biggest literary success of his career, For Whom the Bell Tolls, they are no longer equals, and Martha must make a choice: surrender to the confining demands of being a famous man’s wife or risk losing Ernest by forging a path as her own woman and writer. It is a dilemma that will force her to break his heart, and her own.
I was very intrigued by this book as it is based on a true story and about the second wife of Ernest Hemingway: Martha Gellhorn, who was one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century and an author herself. The novel is told from Martha’s perspective and it starts with her turmoil of attempting to write her second novel, feeling deflated and uninspired after the poor reception of her first. At this time her father also falls ill and this makes her travel back home after spending years in Europe. Some time after this, by pure chance, she meets Ernest Hemingway.
As an aspiring author myself, I could relate to a lot of Martha’s thoughts and feelings about her writing and her books. Later, when she becomes close to Ernest and she feels completely overcast by his reputation and his talent; I felt pure empathy for Martha. As a writer it is so hard not to compare one’s own work or talent to that of writers who have become extremely successful and I felt this aspect of Martha’s experience was portrayed well.
Some of the writing throughout this novel was beautiful and moving and it drew me into the story even more. When the narrative was following Martha and Ernest’s relationship or Martha’s own struggles and accomplishments with her writing, I felt invested and connected to the characters. However, the other aspect of this novel was the conflicts going on at the same time. Namely, the Spanish Civil War and then later World War II broke out. When Martha was reflecting or reporting on the events going on around her or when she was investigating, the writing was completely different. It read exactly like a newspaper report and it felt detached. At times it felt disjointed when it went straight from one style to the other. Possibly, it was supposed read like a report because of Martha’s journalistic side but I didn’t really enjoy it – personal taste.
What especially intrigued me about overall though, was the rise and fall of Martha and Ernest’s relationship. I think the author did an excellent job of bringing their love and ruin to life in this novel. Personally, I’m always interested in characters and relationships in a story and this one especially intrigued me as it centred around an extremely successful journalist and one of the most famous authors.
It has made me want to read both of their works respectively and it gave a lot of context and background to the influence of many of their novels. This book didn’t blow me away but it was a genuine and heartfelt story inspired by true events.
One quote I particularly loved:
I only knew what I knew. That Ernest could eclipse me, large as any sun, without even trying. That he was too famous, too far along in his own career, too sure of what he wanted. He was also too married, too dug into the life he’d built in Key West. Too driven, too dazzling. Too Hemingway.