In Depression-era Key West, Mariella Bennet, the daughter of an American fisherman and a Cuban woman, knows hunger. Her struggle to support her family following her father’s death leads her to a bar and bordello, where she bets on a risky boxing match...and attracts the interest of two men: world-famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, and Gavin Murray, one of the WWI veterans who are laboring to build the Overseas Highway. When Mariella is hired as a maid by Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline, she enters a rarified world of lavish, celebrity-filled dinner parties and elaborate off-island excursions. As she becomes caught up in the tensions and excesses of the Hemingway household, the attentions of the larger-than-life writer become a dangerous temptation...even as straightforward Gavin Murray draws her back to what matters most. Will she cross an invisible line with the volatile Hemingway, or find a way to claim her own dreams? As a massive hurricane bears down on Key West, Mariella faces some harsh truths...and the possibility of losing everything she loves.
It's the 1930s in the Florida Keys and nineteen year old Mariella has just lost her fisherman father in a boating accident. Her mother, understandably, takes the loss incredibly hard, falling into a crippling depression. It's left up to Mariella to become the breadwinner for the family, her siblings relying on her to get dinner on the table each night. Through word of mouth (pretty much), Mariella is able to get a job as a housekeeper in the home of famed writer Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline. Seeing Hemingway in his environment, Mariella not only gets a first hand look into his mind and story inspirations, but she also finds herself developing a bit of a celebrity crush on him, one she briefly confuses for real love. Later on, Mariella has the boxer Gavin Murray come into her life (brought to her town with his work as one of the men helping build the Keys Highway). He is nearer to her age and immediately finds himself drawn to her beauty and quiet strength. A certain level of competition for Mariella's affections develop between Hemingway and Gavin, causing Mariella to deeply examine her feelings for both men, which in turn causes her to go through a major emotional maturation.
While this book is perfect for lovers of classic lit, romance and historical fiction alike, I also like some of the deeper topics the storyline addresses. For instance, Mariella's story brings up the battle with bigotry in the 1930s. Mariella herself is a Cuban-American, Gavin is white. Mariella's mother, Eva, herself being a Cuban woman who married an American man, fears the prejudices Mariella will likely be walking into as her relationship with Gavin develops.
The feel of the story, I found, was similar to that of Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier (one of my favorites!). Mariella is drawn to the famous writer Hemingway while in GWAPE, Griet -- also hired as a housekeeper -- is drawn to the famous painter Vermeer. Vermeer and Hemingway are also written similarly in that they're both interested in the "mysterious house servant" type while struggling with the "ice queen" type wife.
The characters here have SUCH great development, making them feel so real. And not just the characters -- Robuck, I thought, does a fantastic job of bringing the environment to life. I felt like I could really feel the heat and hear the sounds of Mariella's town. Will definitely be going back to this one in the future!