For August, I decided to review Beautiful Exiles by Meg Waite Clayton, an American author. Clayton is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author whose works have a strong feminist perspective. Beautiful Exiles is the story of the love affair and eventual marriage of Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway. Clayton meticulously researched the lives of Gellhorn and Hemingway from their first meeting in Key West when Gellhorn was a young journalist and Hemingway was a literary giant in the making to their affair, marriage and bitter divorce.
Clayton writes as Gellhorn with such conviction I had to remind myself I wasn’t actually reading Gellhorn’s diaries.
Gellhorn is in awe of Hemingway; their friendship grows as they discuss writing and explore what inspires writers to write. Hemingway, very married at the time, is attracted to her beauty, talent and youthful enthusiasm. She becomes a fixture at family dinners and a friend to Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline.
While covering the Spanish Civil War they become lovers despite Gellhorn’s attempts to avoid an affair. Through her eyes, we glimpse at the alcohol and adrenaline infused lives of war correspondents who risk injury, capture or death to report on life at the front during a war. At Gellhorn’s insistence, Hemingway visits the wounded at an army hospital where he is forced to confront the realities of war and the romantic notion of being a hero.
I have definite views about infidelity, but I understand why Gellhorn falls for Hemingway, a big bear of a man who chooses his words with surgical precision.
Gellhorn earns her writing chops and becomes one of the most respected war correspondents of her time – a time when it was considered unseemly for a woman to be a war correspondent. We share her frustration as she’s repeatedly denied permission to visit war zones because of her sex. We feel the sting when she is later referred to as Mrs. Hemingway instead of Martha Gellhorn, respected journalist and war correspondent.
Gellhorn and Hemingway live together in pre-Castro Cuba and attempt to settle into life as a couple without the danger or urgency of a battlefield.
With no bombs exploding and no heroic combatants, the tenuous fibers holding their relationship together begin to unravel. Though they inspire and encourage each other to be brilliant, they are still two writers with very different styles competing to be the best. Hemingway is disciplined and focused on his work, while Gellhorn abhors writing schedules. Hemingway gives in to bouts of depression and binge drinking that often turn violent. Gellhorn misses being a war correspondent and longs to recapture the passion and excitement of being with Hemingway at his best, covering a war.
Clayton’s writing is refreshingly honest. She makes no attempt to excuse the behaviors of Gellhorn or Hemingway – the infidelity, the jealous rages or the drunken rants. Instead she makes us feel the incredible burden of greatness and the constant search for the next great work.
Although I knew how the story would end, Clayton succeeded in making me care about Gellhorn and Hemingway and wish for a happier ending for our lovers.
Meg Waite Clayton has written six novels, The Wednesday Daughters, The Language of Light, The Four Mrs. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters, The Race for Paris and Beautiful Exiles. For more information, visit her website, megwaiteclayton.com.
Photos of the author and her book were taken from her website.
Photo of Gellhorn and Hemingway is in the public domain,