Year One by Nora Roberts – Book

 

Nora Roberts, author of Year One usually writes romance novels. I do enjoy a good romance novel. It doesn’t necessarily give your brain a workout but it sends you on an emotional journey that often ends in a happy sigh and a temporary uplift in your spirts. Lately I forgo the brief jolt of endorphins offered by fake joy for books with a more mental punch. But I will say that I think even fake joy can make your day. This time Nora Roberts goes off the chart and gives us an apocalypse. Even if it still encompasses a good deal of romance, there is also suspense and grief and magic and black magic, and this is only the first book of a trilogy, The Chronicles of the One. One of my sisters passed this book on to me.

The story begins in Scotland where Ross MacLeod, who now resides in NYC, visits the family farm in Dumfries, Scotland which has been in the family for over two hundred years. Ross goes for a walk on his land and changes the world when he shoots a pheasant that lands in a magic circle and activates an old blood sacrifice he accidentally contributed to fifty years earlier, simply by tripping and scraping a hand on a stone that sits in that ancient stone circle on the property. Ross is a bit freaked by the circling of crows above the site but he is no believer in magic. When he gets very ill he thinks it is a flu virus. Then he dies. Soon this untreatable and incurable disease, named the Doom, begins to spread as rapidly as people move around the globe these days.

The grief people feel is enormous. Max and Lana, newly in love and experimenting with some talents they seem to possess which indicate they might be witches, do not sense the enormity of the escalating depopulation right away. For a moment they are a spot of joy in a city that is being devastated by disease and looting and violence. Lana is a chef, Max a writer. Arlys, a newscaster on a popular NYC stations has been promoted to the main news desk by default. She offers daily news to anyone who is still listening. Fred is an intern who works with Arlys and who has a secret which might help explain her effervescent personality. One day Arlys is given reasons to tell her listeners the real news, which is far more frightening than what she is used to offering. Rachel is a doctor, Jonah an EMT. They are trying to run a hospital with fewer and fewer staff, and patients they are unable to save.

When these New Yorkers finally accept that they must leave their beloved city and travel to more rural areas we see them depart in pairs to look for more people who have survived the Doom. Why some people survive while others do not is something that has no satisfactory answer. Some survivors have found that they now have magical talents. Fred’s secret is that she is a faerie with wings and a sprightly spirit that makes her quite lovable. Max and Lana find that they have become more talented witches than they ever were before. Some people find they are elves. And yet some people like Rachel and Arlys have no discernible magical talents and yet they survive.

Getting out of New York is not an easy thing for anyone. It turns out that magical people, like normal people can use their talents for good or for evil. Many survivors have turned to evil and can harm magical people who strive to be good if they catch them off guard or if their talents are unequal. There are also the usual gangs that thrive on chaos. Traveling is scary and dangerous and there is more safety in numbers. Eventually all these New Yorkers meet, not quite by accident in a new community that is taking shape in New Hope, Virginia.

There is social commentary here. The Uncanny, as the magical humans are named, become “the other” and are feared by intolerant humans who cannot accept people with magical talents as neighbors. They taunt them and troll them and make sharing a community uncomfortable and sometimes worse things happen when the intolerants do more than use their words.

As soon as the internet is partially restored this message is posted:  “If you are reading this, you are one of the chosen. No doubt you have lost those dear to you and have felt, many still know, despair. No doubt you have witnessed firsthand the abominations that have desecrated the world Our Lord created. You may believe the End Times are upon us. But take heart! You are not alone! Have faith! Have courage! We who survived this demonic plague wrought by Satan’s Children face a Great Test. Only we can defend our world, our lives our very souls. Arm yourselves and join The Holy Crusade.” The Purity Warriors

The Purity Warriors pretend to save the world in the name of religion but they actually spread terror and violent rape and death, especially targeting the Uncanny. But Lana is carrying The One. Will she bear the child in safety to grow to her full powers? How will she change the sad equation in a ruined world? Good stuff for real, even if it seems to have a bit too much sugar on top.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Parade

Find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

The Heist by Daniel Silva – Book

Daniel Silva’s 14th book featuring his reader’s favorite Israeli spy is The Heist. Gabriel Allon kills the people who do evil in the world (Europe and the Middle East for the most part). Gabriel is an unlikely hero, slight of build, not very tall, with a full head of dark hair graying at the temples. He has aged some through the years and is somewhere in his fifties but he has a new young wife, Chiara, who also works for “the Office”. Gabriel feels regret for the killing he does but he doesn’t let that govern him because these are villains, exhibiting some serious anti-social behaviors.

Gabriel is an unusual spy because he is a great art restorer (who perhaps would have been a great artist except for his mentor, Ari Shamron). Shamron recruited him and he wants Allon to agree to become the head of Israeli Intelligence. Gabriel has resisted this role but has recently promised that he will do that when Uzi Navot’s term ends.

Art heists have become common in Europe. Security in museums is often fairly lax or spread a bit thin. Art thieves have many ways to trick museums, but one of the safest is to employ a great forger. Empty spaces tend to attract attention, but it often takes time to identify a really good forgery as a fake. One painting, missing for a long time, is a Caravaggio painting of a mother and child. Gabriel may be Jewish but he specializes in restoring Renaissance religious art. He hopes to find that Caravaggio, but the painting seems to have fallen into the hands of a dictator who gases his own people.

So, there is a Syrian connection in this story, and Silva provides an informative backstory of the origins of the regime of Bashar al Assad, which is now in Gabriel’s sights. Gabriel cannot assassinate Assad, but he can try to make some of his ill-gotten fortune turn up in other bank accounts. There is a woman involved who works for a Saudi man who hides Assad’s fortune in lots of places where banking secrets are seen as sacred, and where laws can’t reach, such as the Cayman Islands. Gabriel doesn’t let women off the hook as sources and allies in matters of conscience. He has only lost one of the women he enlisted to help so far, although she was already ill and dying. Does the woman he recruits this time live through this op?

Does Gabriel Allon get Assad’s money? Does he find the Caravaggio? Does Chiara lose the twins she is carrying? Fourteen books later, still good stuff.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, NewsOK

The English Girl by Daniel Silva – Book

The English Girl by Daniel Silva stands out as a Gabriel Allon book that sort of breaks the mold. It has all the characters we expect to find, but they don’t show up for quite a while. Instead Gabriel teams up with a character who has enticed our interest from time to time, Christopher Keller.

Christopher Keller is a dead man. On the record he died as a British soldier. In actual fact he was the only survivor of a deadly attack. Since his parents in London have already mourned his death, and since he has no official identity he took a job as an assassin in the service of Don Orsati, the “Don” of Corsica. Don Orsati pays well and he treat Chris Keller like a son.

Up to now Silva has used Christopher sparingly in his books, perhaps because he does not always “fight for the right”. But in The English Girl he teams up with Gabriel and we see a social, “bro”-style side to Gabriel that we rarely if ever see. The two men seem relaxed with each other. This may also be because the details of this particular spy tale are a bit unusual.

Gabriel is supposed to be permanently retired but when a young English woman on a Corsican vacation is kidnapped, Graham Seymour of MI5 (soon to be MI6) asks Gabriel for some hush-hush help. Why is this girl more important than your average British subject? Perhaps because she holds the Prime Minister’s career in her hands. Since Gabriel’s trail starts on Corsica, Christopher is a natural choice for a partner in the investigation which seems like it will be quite simple to resolve. Also Christopher owes Gabriel a favor and Gabriel has a token attesting to that debt which he plans to redeem.

Corsica requires certain behaviors that must be observed if one wants to borrow Keller from Don Orsati. Gabriel must always stop by to see Don Orsati first and share a meal and a few intimidating amenities. And, although Gabriel scoffs at superstition, a rather talented seer must be consulted. For some reason she tells Gabriel he will die if he goes to Moscow. How could the kidnapping of an English girl possibly have a Moscow connection? To unravel that mystery you will have to start in Corsica with Gabriel and Christopher. I did not foresee the twist this thriller takes. Enjoy!

Photo Credit: ClipZui.com

Find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – Book

Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Transcription, joins a spate of World War literature coming out of Great Britain. All these books talk about what British citizens who were not soldiers did during wars. People wanted to help with the war effort and since many of the adults who were still in British cities were women, the tasks women took on often affected them in ways similar to the way soldiers are affected. The end of the war found women who had done unlikely, dangerous and heroic things, having to assimilate their war time behavior into the person they would be moving forward in peacetime. Other recent novels include: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn which I have not read yet, Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce, and Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

Why is this the moment when so many writers were moved to write about such very similar experiences? Are people feeling an instability in political institutions these days that could lead to war? Are people rushing to offer us some patriotic roles that we could play? Is this a creative brain meld? Is this just an odd coincidence or nostalgic moment? With all the authoritarian figures rising in nations that once flirted with democracy does this feel somewhat similar to the rise of “you know who” before WWII? Are authors feeling the same fears we all feel that we may be called upon to defend our freedoms in the very near future, or to keep them alive for what could be decades of darkness?

Transcription is an absorbing book all on its own, but I recommend giving all these books a read because each takes a different tack on the same subject. In Transcription our heroine Juliet Armstrong is recruited by MI5 to help keep an eye on Hitler lovers and want-to-be Nazi’s living in England. British intelligence rents two adjacent apartments. In one a rather convincing Godfrey Toby, a spy of course, makes friends and collects important data about England’s defenses. These friends of Hitler think Gordon will pass this strategic data on to Germany. Of course this is simply a way for Britain to keep this information away from Germany and keep potential British traitors from doing real damage to the allied side in the war.

The second apartment is filled with recording equipment and a typewriter where a very young Juliet listens to what Gordon’s unwary informants reveal and then types a transcript that tries to give a word-by-word script of who is talking and what they reveal. Not all of the dialogue comes across clearly but Juliet does the best she can. Then Juliet is embroiled further into spying when she is asked to adopt a new persona and join a more upscale right wing group of traitors. This is how a girl who simply types gets deeply into something that is so unforgettable that she will never be free of either her memories or her handlers.

Do books make the future and the culture happen, do they predict what will come, or do they just reflect the present and the culture of the times in which they are written? It seems that books can do all of these things, and they can sometimes do all of them at one and the same time, which is probably one of the aspects of reading great books that keeps readers hooked. So what will turn out to be true of this little cluster of intellectual doppelgangers?

I am happy to read every book that Kate Atkinson writes and I feel the same way about Michael Ondaatje. I don’t know the other two authors as well but I may eventually be adding them to my long list of beloved authors. However, I would much prefer that these novels be reflective rather than predictive. You may find that you begin asking yourself how you would have performed under similar circumstances. One more point, possibly a #metoo point, although all of these books feature female characters, not one of them is a “chick” book. But because they all happen in the past, all these women work for men. However war seems to blur the lines between women’s work and men’s work as you will see. Don’t forget to spend a few moments thinking about why this book is called Transcription rather than Transcriptions. Thank you Kate.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search, Running in Heels

Fear by Bob Woodward – Book

Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) recently published his exposé of the chaos in the early days of the Trump White House called simply, Fear: Trump in the White House.If you have been paying attention to the news (not Fox) then what you are reading in this book is hardly surprising. You see Steve Bannon come and go. The James Comey drama is in there. You see the contributions of people who played a role in those early days but are now gone, like Hope Hicks and Rob Porter. Tillerson and Trump disagree about foreign policy and Tillerson is replaced by Pompeo. Some of Trump’s fears about the Mueller investigation are covered.

There was a recent article in the NYT’s written by an anonymous source who told us that Trump’s West Wing staff are so worried about Trump’s orders telling them to design documents that will solidify bad policies, orders to place those documents on his desk to be signed, that they delay producing the papers and even remove the documents if they appear on Trump’s desk. They know that Trump’s mind jumps around from one idea to the next and that if the policy document is not placed in front of him he will forget about it (for a while). This is all covered in Woodward’s book. Woodward was there so it helps us feel like we are actually in the Oval Office, flies on the wall, experiencing staff fears in real time.

One of the greatest of all the fears is the one that shows us that someone who formed his policy ideas in some earlier decade, someone as inflexible as Trump, someone unwilling to learn about in-depth intelligence and to apply it to his fondly-held theories, someone unwilling to evolve, to revise old dogma, to encompass new data controls the nuclear codes. People in former administrations did not lightly make nuclear threats in hopes that going nuclear will turn enemies into friends. We don’t usually brag that our nuclear capabilities are greater than those of our enemies although we believe that it is basically understood. Nuclear boasting might backfire and the consequences could be devastating. Sometimes threatening documents, once produced, were removed from presidential proximity before he could sign them, but the fear that surrounds any casual treatment of nuclear weapons is always there.

Bob Woodward is not just making us aware that Trump’s staff lives in fear of Trump inadequacies and belligerent nature; he is telling us that we need to be fearful of a man who is filling a position he does not understand. We need to know that he is running America on ego, calcified opinions, and praise elicited by implied threats (fear). We need to follow Bob Woodward into those rooms in our nation’s White House and watch the slapdash way that business is now conducted daily in America. His account is very readable and the actual meat of the book ends well before the pages do. What follows is a section of photos, some pretty useful end notes, and a detailed index. If you have been paying attention to an in-depth news station like MSNBC it will all be very familiar. What will be different is that this time you are “in the room where it happens”.

The children in this Rainbow Room video offer revealing and very brief reviews of Bob Woodward’s book, reviews that sum things up very well.

https://mashable.com/video/stephen-colbert-reading-rainbow-woodward-trump/#FGlobArRcZqb

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Washington Times

Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva – Book

Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva is Book 12 in the Gabriel Allon series, the fictional, but famous spy for the Israeli Intelligence Service at the Office on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv Israel. Gabriel is an unusual person to be an assassin for justice, world peace, and the survival of Israel. He is an artist who gave up an artist’s life (his own) when recruited by Shamron, the aging hero of Israel, to pursue the terrorists who killed athletes from his beloved homeland at the Olympics in Munich.

Since that op he has trained with a talented art restorer and has become one of the best restorers of classic religious art in Europe. He is a bundle of contradictions but his strong values tie the whole package together. Gabriel’s family was, for the most part, killed in the Holocaust, except his mother who never really recovered from the horrors she experienced. Gabriel lost his first wife and his son to a car bomb, probably targeted towards Gabriel. Terrorists blew his life away right before his eyes. And even though they failed to kill the one the car bomb was designed to kill this became a sorrow he had to carry with him always. It hardened his heart in a more personal way and made him more lethal, more determined to fight evil in the world.

Through the first 11 books there have been plenty of evil actors to stop in their tracks, tracks which always are about either power and world domination or money or both. Eventually Gabriel remarried to the beautiful Chiara, daughter of a Rabbi, who also does intelligence work for the Office. Sometimes she is with him on ops and sometimes she stays home. Putting her at risk brings back old memories for Gabriel. After a while Allon is joined by a team, each person with different strengths and we become concerned about their safety in these rather impossible-seeming, risky, but usually successful operations they undertake. Gabriel is frequently wounded because he cannot let a villain get away. He retires every time he completes a mission as if he has beaten evil once and for all. But he knows this war is endless and he up-ends his life over and over again to do battle when he must. After a while we begin to wish there really was a Gabriel Allon and a Chiara, et al out there in the world, abolishing amorality and immorality.

So in Fallen Angel we have a lovely young woman who agrees to inventory antiquities in the Vatican collection who is found artistically dead after a fall from a balcony in the Sistine Chapel. At first her death is ruled a suicide. But Gabriel is a friend of the Vatican’s top two people, the Pope and his constant companion Father Donati, because he saved the Pope’s life and unraveled one of the plots that live in the competitive Vatican culture. Gabe is restoring a Caravaggio in some basement on the Vatican grounds and Donati has him summoned to tap into his expertise. Gabriel (also a fallen angel) does not believe this is a suicide. But when he pulls a couple of strings he opens a Pandora’s box of illegal trading in antiquities. These thieves never preserve provenance and this represents a huge loss of historical data about ancient sites and people. Once again what begins in Italy leads Gabriel all over the world and eventually home to Israel.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – You Tube

Find me on Goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter – Book

We meet the Kurc (Kur-see) family in Rodam, Poland in 1939. Hitler is on the move and we know what is coming, but this close-knit family of middle class Jewish Poles does not. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, covers familiar and dreaded ground, but this is a family of survivors. How did that happen?

Not one of these five siblings or their parents ended up at a concentration camp. They saw that Jews were being rounded up. They saw the railroad cars crammed with frightened humans supposedly going off to work in war factories. How is it that of the five (Addy, Halina, Bella, Genek, and Mila) and their parents only Mila ended up on such a train and she managed to escape a truly traumatic fate. They did not collaborate, they did not thrive; they worked almost to breaking in factories, subsisted on little food and sometimes no food. They often did not know where their other siblings were and they missed their family terribly, and worried about each other all the time.

The book skips between siblings and their spouses so we know where the Kurc’s are and how close they came to discovery and death, but they only learn this after the war when they all meet their son/brother Addy in Brazil. Georgia Hunter, the author, is Addy’s grandchild. He married a woman in Brazil who was from the American South. How did he get to Brazil?

Dumb luck and many delays, near capture, and the ability to anticipate and avoid being trapped helped Addy survive. He learned the name of a man who was supplying visas to Jews so they could leave Europe. He went to see this man and ended up on one of the last ships to Brazil. Even so all aboard the ship got rerouted to Casablanca and Addy almost ended up being caught there with an expired visa and sent back to Europe. This is just one of the family’s survival stories. The rest are just as compelling although told more as history than drama.

Georgia wrote a fictional story for the sake of flow and form and character development, but this is essentially a true story she researched for a decade, interviewing family, visiting museums and Holocaust data centers. Her family, whose stories she tells in We Were the Lucky Ones, may have only survived because they did not stay in one place and they were willing to learn new languages, buy papers that said they were Catholic, and because they were the recipients of favors from non-Jewish Europeans.

I don’t know why stories about WW II and the Holocaust keep falling into my hands, but this period in human history was a time when heroes and villains reigned. This was a time when what we learned about human nature was that we could succumb to a sickness of the spirit, to our most negative traits, envy, fear of others, national pride, genocide; or resist and become our better selves. Such books have special relevance in 2018 when we are in the midst of dealing with our fear of Muslims and “the others”, inclined to isolationism, and fomented to an exaggerated nationalism similar to what sent the German people so spectacularly and disgustingly awry in those WW II years.

Every time I read about WW II I learn something I did not know and feel things that I would not have felt otherwise. This may not be a perfect book; but it’s a very good debut and a great addition to the growing library of books about WW II for Jews in Europe.

Photo Credit: Books and a View

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva – Book

Europe is in an economic recession and it is flooded with refugees who cannot speak the language of their new nations and who have difficulty finding work that will pay enough to support their families, or even a single person. In this post 9/11 world refugees inhabit areas around Europe’s cities and some mosques are centers of religious radicalism where young men are recruited to terrorize the West. Portrait of a Spy(Gabriel Allon Series, Book 11) by Daniel Silva deals with an environment we recognize from our very recent past, a set of circumstances that could easily flare up again in the future.

Gabriel Allon, now a retired Israeli spy, leaves his cottage in Cornwall to visit Isherwood Studios in London, run by Julian Isherwood, friend of Gabriel and of Israel. Gabriel is a talented art restorer who often restores damaged paintings, sometimes for Isherwood. Gabriel’s wife Chiara is with him. As they are walking near Covent Garden Gabriel spots a suicide bomber. Bombs have been used in the past few days in Paris and in Copenhagen, and a bomb is about to detonate in Central London.

No one else identifies this man as a terrorist but Gabriel’s experiences set off warning signals. He even knows what time the bomber will trigger the detonator because it is timed to when a plane hit a target on 9/11. Gabriel is almost on time to stop the killing. Gabriel has his gun out to shoot the bomber when two London policemen arrest him. The bomber detonates. Gabriel’s guilt calls him back to duty as a spy. He even has a fair idea of who is running this group of terrorists. When he is vouched for by Graham Seymour, head of MI5 he joins forces with Adrian Carter of the CIA in Washington, DC and a cohort he has hunted down bad actors with on the world stage many times. Chiara is on board and eventually his team joins him in the new high tech national security center in DC.

The man Gabriel is seeking has been out of view for years and is believed dead. But Gabriel does not believe it. Word is that the terrorist group is running out of money which means these guys will go to ground for a while. Gabriel visits a young and wealthy Arab business woman he met when she was a young girl in the South of France (Book #6, The Messenger). Nadia al-Bakari was with her father (a wealthy funder of terrorists) when Gabriel killed him. She is also a philanthropist, helping especially Arab women. Nadia forgives Gabriel and agrees to buy a recently restored painting to create pool of invisible money that will go to tempt the terrorist and his group into the open.

As usual with Gabriel Allon spy thrillers the plan unfolds in great detail before we get to the actual op and the usually violent end game. Terrorists and other bad actors who stay hidden are well-guarded and very paranoid. They are hard to kill. Gabriel does not usually get off without injury. We always wonder what will happen to him this time. He also does not like to put others in danger, although he will do what he must to take out someone whose intent is to harm many. How do things turn out for Nadia?

It is Silva’s contention that Saudi Wahhabism has led to a good deal of the terrorism unleashed on Europe and America. He also feels that America’s supposed Allies, the Saudi’s, are responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the intended attack on Washington that shocked America and the world. And yet we remain tied to Saudi Arabia, probably for oil more than loyalty. A fiction author, such as Daniel Silva, writing a spy thriller like Portrait of a Spy, is freer than others to speak candidly about his world view and these spy thrillers always connect to events in the real world. This one upped my heart rate.

Equally bizarre, as I am writing this it is 9/11, seventeen years later, and they are reading the names of those killed in the attack on the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on my TV news. A most strange coincidence.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce – Book

At first, when I began to listen to Dear Mrs. Bird by A J Pearce, I thought I might be diving into a new Brigitte Jones style “chick lit” book. Since these books are a guilty pleasure of mine I was not unhappy about it. Emmeline Lake has a job at a law office (solicitor) but she wants to be a journalist. She has not taken any journalism courses but there is war in England and wars are often crucibles that enable those who are brave enough to do things without credentials. These fast lanes tend to disappear in peacetime. Emmy has a best friend she calls Bunty who grew up nearby and has been her friend for years. They share a small apartment in town on the third floor of a house belonging to Bunty’s parents. Bunty’s parents are no longer living but her grandmother is.

Bunty works in the War Office with secret documents and Emmeline works at the fire station several evenings a week taking emergency calls during the frequent bombing runs from Germany (it’s “the blitz”). Almost everyone who can does war work. When Emmy answers an ad that looks like it is for a “junior” at a prominent London newspaper she believes that this will be her entry into journalism. She shares her various unrealistic but highly idealistic fantasies on this theme with us. We are entertained.

The novel Pearce writes ends up being not nearly as superficial as it seems in the beginning. The job at the paper actually involves working with a woman who is a real character, actually an old battle axe, as we used to say. She comes from wealth but she is a country woman with lots of dogs and a gruff manner. She is involved in a number of charities and she is connected to important people who have known her all their lives. She’s never endearing but she is a force. Her name is Henrietta Bird and she answers letters in a column for women who need advice, in a news sheet style magazine called Women’s Helper. People address their letters to Dear Mrs. Bird.

The magazine is in decline as Mrs. Bird is not exactly modern and refuses to answer any problems that involve topics like sex, or affairs, or divorce, or even menopause “Buck up and get on with things,” is her usual advice favorite. When Emmy goes to work for Mrs. Bird deciding which letters Mrs. Bird will answer, she has difficulty ignoring the letters that seem to cry out for exactly the kinds of advice Mrs. Bird will not give. Emmy’s decisions relative to Mrs. Bird’s neglect end up bringing about a crisis for Emmeline that is quite adult. The war also hits far too close to home.

Although I found this book a bit young for me, I enjoyed it anyway. And the writing, although not terribly literary, never got in the way of the story. The author makes living in England, at the time when it was being bombed to rubble on every clear night, accessible to those who might like to flesh out their high school history lessons. Since I listened to the book I should note that the whole narrative was read in a particular British accent we Americans enjoy very much.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain – Book

 

Paula McLain wrote about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson in her novel, The Paris Wife and, this time, in Love and Ruin she writes about Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn. I can understand the fascination with the women who married this literary giant. What kind of woman does such a legendary figure find himself attracted to? Hemingway was a handsome guy. Women found him desirable. It is almost tempting to wonder why only four women. But Hemingway sounds like he was not really a “ladies man”. He spent most of his social hours with men. He also seems to have seen women as occupying pretty traditional roles in a marriage, although he seems to have treated his wives as companions some of the time. Everyone in Hemingway’s world had a nickname.

Some readers do not value a fictional account of a Hemingway wife as they would a nonfiction one, but Paula McLain does do her homework, which she describes after the novel ends. So Love and Ruin is grounded in fact. But the day-to-day exchanges in a marriage are usually private business between husband and wife, although friends are privy to some of it, and can only be imagined in fiction.

Martha Gellhorn and her mother were recovering from the death of Martha’s father when they made a trip to somewhere as different and faraway as they could get without complicated travel arrangements. They fled to Key West and who should they meet in a bar almost immediately upon their arrival but Ernest Hemingway.

Both mother and daughter were pretty, long-legged and not at all shy. Ernest, married to Pauline Pfeiffer (Fife) with three boys (two from his first marriage) had his home, with his wife, right there in Key West. But he offered these two Gellhorn women a tour of the island. It was then he found out that Martha Gellhorn was a published writer. He began their relationship as her mentor. She was quite a bit younger. It seemed innocent enough.

If they had never gone off to report on the Spanish Civil War (Franco) at the same time (together) they might never have fallen in love and broken up Hemingway’s thirteen year marriage to Pauline. But Martha Gellhorn was not a “little wife” type of girl. She always wanted to be at the center of the biggest storm. She wanted to live life and she insisted that involved covering events like wars that only men generally wrote about. She and Ernest began as fellow war writers; she for Colliers, he making notes for a novel. Both felt more alive when death was everywhere around them.

When they needed to get away from the war they fled to Cuba, a place that Hemingway loved almost as much as Key West. They could not go to Key West because Hemingway was still married to Pauline. Martha found an old Cuban farm and when her book sold she used the money to restore it. It became the famous Finca where Hemingway still resided at the end of his live.

Martha imagined a sort of nirvana, with two writers living and sharing their craft, but Hemingway did not cooperate. He was demanding and selfish, and loving and ardent, and a partier and a hard drinker. Martha often found him exasperating. But just before World War II began Hemingway and Pauline divorced and Martha and Ernest married. They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon but trouble already was brewing. Martha had an independent streak that Hemingway despised and when she wanted to go off on her own to work or visit home he pouted and acted out. Although they both went off to London to cover the war they were more like rivals than sweethearts by then. Their marriage barely survived the war.

Martha Gellhorn went on to have her own career as a writer of some fame and Hemingway wrote one of my favorite books Islands in the Stream. Hemingway remarried to Mary Walsh, a bond that lasted until they both died in a plane crash in Africa. We leave Martha behind when her marriage to Hemingway ends which belies the contention that this is a book about Martha Gellhorn. It is a book about a Hemingway wife, but one stamped out of such an independent and adventurous mold that the marriage was doomed to end in ruin. It made me aware of her as a writer and a dashing person who was ahead of history, and an admirable person in her own right.

You will have to decide about the fiction/nonfiction choice for yourself and also about whether or not this is a “chick” book. But Martha Gellhorn is worthy of our attention and Paula McLain made her quite real. A worthwhile read.