Book review: Mildred Pierce

photos of author James M Cain and 1st ed. of Mildred Pierce Aside from a very youthful devotion to Agatha Christie and a semi-youthful one to Fleming's 007 series, I've never been drawn to genre fiction.1 Even in these two cases, you could say my real affinity was for Christie and Fleming (or Poirot/Miss Marple and Bond, James Bond), not mysteries or spy stories, something the occasional dip into a genre would just reinforce.

Honestly, I'll happily consume the best of any genre, where "best" equals "what moves me." I get that some people reject slapstick or horror or melodrama out of hand; I especially get it as a non-fan of The 3 Stooges, the Saw franchise (one of which I saw accidentally, no pun intended) and, with the exception of a freakish Luke-'n'-Laura fixation in high school, daytime soaps.

On the other hand, if you go in for wholesale rejection of a genre, you stand to miss out on all sorts of good stuff, in film as well as in books: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, not to mention the entire Bugs Bunny oeuvre; Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (as well as Candyman and The Ring and Night of the Living Dead); and everything Douglas Sirk ever made.

It was my strange love of 1940s melodrama which, in a very roundabout way, led me to Mildred Pierce, the James M. Cain novel that served as source material for the 1945 noir-ish vehicle of the same name, the one that resuscitated Joan "Box-Office Poison"'s career. As with Play Misty for Me (a seminal example of the woman-wronged thriller genre set in 1970s Central California) and Jackie Brown (a brilliant caper picture set in the Los Angeles South Bay of the 1990s, but equally an homage to the 1970s blaxploitation genre), I became obsessed with Milded Pierce, the film, for several years, watching it over and over again to soak up period detail and Faulkner-tinged darkness. I'm drawn to art with a strong sense of time and place, with a particular fondness for the California of a different time; I'm also partial to (surprise, surprise) fiction that features a strong female character at its center, even if she's a little off-whack.

This, Mildred Pierce-the-book has in spades, even more so than the film version. Cain's Mildred, like  Hollywood's, is cunning at business, not to mention tenacious. Fed up with the philandering antics of her unemployed husband, she tosses him out on his ear, this, at the height of the Depression, with no means of supporting herself and her two girls, much less paying the mortgages on the outsized house Bert built for them in grander days. Yet bit by bit, through sheer force of will, she not only pulls them up and out, but way out, building a restaurant empire out of homemade pies and latent street smarts her mousy-housewifely life didn't begin to hint at.

It's here that the book and film truly diverge. I was shocked to read Cain's description of Mildred: blond, small and weak-chinned, a perfectly nice-looking, ordinary woman who, over the course of the book, sees her looks start to slip and her slim figure run to fat. Compare that to Mildred as depicted by the icy Crawford, who, though she was tiny herself, was formidable and mannish; in every picture Crawford did, she looked pulled together; she also frequently looked like she was a hair's breadth from picking up whomever she didn't like and heaving them from her path, if not just eating them outright. Maybe it was the shoulder pads.

Cain's Mildred is also an extraordinary woman, but partly because in some ways she is so ordinary: a tiny, emotionally needy (and, uh, sexually rapacious!) wisp of a nothing, who has freakish secret reserves of strength and savvy (and, uh, sexually rapaciousness!).

Equally powerful in the book, if not more so, is Mildred's wildly narcissistic elder daughter, Veda, a vain, conniving, beautiful girl who has no use for anyone or anything she cannot manipulate. My favorite passage in a book of many, many favorite passages is one where her singing teacher reveals the truth of this serpent-child to Mildred, who is so blinded by love of her daughter, and some textbook-crazy love, at that, she stands to be destroyed by her. It is ingenious and shocking and hilarious, all at once: a brilliant, out-of-nowhere character analysis that is so on the money, your breath is taken away.

The book is fat and juicy, full of good stuff like this, as opposed to the movie, which is a lean, slick creature of another sort almost entirely. Which is not to say either is better than the other, but that each is brilliant in its way. The movie plucks here and there from the book, a character, a storyline, a setting, but casts aside much of the delicious psychological character study for its noir through-line. Reading Mildred Pierce is like that recurring dream of New Yorkers: the one where they open a hitherto secret door somewhere in their tiny apartments and find a huge, sprawling, extra-apartment's-worth of rooms, complete with all the high ceilings and skylights and million other details your perfectly-nice but oh-so-cramped place was missing without your even knowing it.

It is, in short, 300 pages of sheer pleasure. And that is worth dipping into any genre for...

xxx c

1 I also went through a Stephen King phase in high school, starting with the short stories that showed up in women's magazines, continuing to The Stand, which was maddeningly bloated compared to the house-afire reads of Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining. My theory was that he got too big to edit, there's some irony for you, although I did enjoy bits and pieces of subsequent books, and always admired his way with a story. My god, to be able to come up with plots like that!

Photos: (l) photo of author James M. Cain (lifted from NNDB, which has a crackin'-good quote about Cain from fellow genre author, Raymond Chandler); (r) cover of first edition of Mildred Pierce ©1941 Alfred A. Knopf, via wikipedia.

Yo! Disclosure! Links to the books in the post above are Amazon affiliate links. This means if you click on them and buy something, I receive an affiliate commission. Which I hope you do: it helps keep me in books to review. More on this disclosure stuff at publisher Michael Hyatt's excellent blog, from whence I lifted (and smooshed around a little) this boilerplate text.