Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mildred Pierce: James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce is a novel by a crime fiction author, James M. Cain, but it is not a mystery. It is the story of a divorced mother of two girls who struggles to support herself and her daughters during the Great Depression. The novel was made into a movie with Joan Crawford in 1945 and a TV miniseries starring Kate Winslet in 2011, so probably most people know about this book and it needs little introduction.

  • Main characters: Mildred Pierce, mother of two daughters, Veda and Ray. Bert Pierce, her husband at the outset of the novel.
  • Setting: Glendale, a major city in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Currently Glendale is the third largest city in LA County, with a population of about 200,000. When this book was written, the population was only about 80,000.
  • Time: 1930's. Begins in 1931, during the Great Depression. Veda is eleven and Ray is seven. 

As the book opens, Bert Pierce is doing yard work. He comes indoors, and soon he and his wife Mildred are having an argument over his contribution to the marriage and his continuing involvement with another woman. Mildred asks him to move out, and thus begins her effort to find a way to pay the mortgage and support her two daughters.

The family had been used to having money. In his youth, Bert was lucky enough to inherit some land, and became a partner in a housing development. He invested the money in AT&T and the Pierces had plenty of money.
But then came Black Thursday of 1929, and his plunge to ruin was so rapid he could hardly see Pierce Homes disappear on his way down. In September he had been rich, and Mildred picked out the mink coat she would buy when the weather grew cooler. In November, with the weather not a bit cooler, he had to sell the spare car to pay current bills. 
Thus times are desperate for the Pierces. Bert has no money and has not been successful at getting a job. Mildred sells cakes that she bakes herself, but that won't pay the bills for long. She begins looking for a job but doesn't have the skills for any jobs other than housekeeper or waitress, which she considers too menial. And this is when we discover that her horror of taking a job like housekeeper or waitress is because Veda, her eldest daughter, will be ashamed of her.

From this point on, it seems that almost every choice Mildred makes is in service of Veda, to buy her clothes or piano lessons, or so that she will be the mother that Veda will be proud of. Veda is haughty and snobbish, even at the age of 11, and Mildred knows that she will choose to live with her father and his parents if things don't go her way. The younger daughter Ray is just a normal child, but very much in Veda's shadow.

The story continues on through another 10 years at least, with Mildred working hard and investing money in Veda's musical career, and continuing to seek her love and approval. It was hard for me to feel sympathy or empathy for any of the characters. That is not a requirement for a good book, of course, but it does usually lead to more enjoyment in reading in my case. I have heard of parents who are blind to their children's faults, but Mildred is not blind to Veda's manipulative behavior or her willingness to use people. She actively supports almost anything Veda wants, knowing what kind of person she is. Veda despises her mother but continues to take her money and her support. Even though Veda behaves appallingly, Mildred has only herself to blame for any suffering she experiences.

There were aspects I liked about this book but I cannot say it was a pleasant read.  I did find this a good portrayal of life in the US in the 1930's and appreciated Mildred as a strong female character, with drive and ambition, although not an admirable one. I liked the novel best when the story was concentrating on Mildred's abilities in setting up a restaurant and running a business, and the help she got from friends and acquaintances.

Many people who have seen the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford assume that the book is much like the movie. I thought the same until a couple of years ago. The movie is a film noir, and it has murder mystery plot. Much of it is told in flashbacks with Mildred telling the police her story. That structure is not at all like the book. I do remember liking the acting and, of course, the movie is beautifully made.

This post is a submission for Friday Forgotten Books at Pattinase, hosted by Patti Abbott. On February 17th, the theme is Children Gone Wrong. Mildred Pierce is not a forgotten book but Veda Pierce definitely fits the description of an extremely difficult child. I don't know that she is monstrous or even wicked so much as self-centered to the extent of caring for no one but herself.

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Publisher:   Vintage, 1989 (orig. publ. 1941).
Length:      238 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Glendale, California
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2014..

14 comments:

  1. I can't imagine why this book has been so neglected. Probably because of the silly Joan Crawford movie which changed the ending. All of the details of this book - Mildred's obsessions, the aftermath of prohibition, her downfall - are fascinating. But most of all it is a the study of a woman, living in a time when it was difficult for everyone and especially women. And beautifully written.

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    1. From my perspective, I avoided books by Cain because of the subject matter and I though Mildred Pierce would be the same. On the other hand, I would think the movie would have made the book more popular.

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  2. Saw the movie and didn't like it as I really don't like Joan Crawford and that spoiled daughter! I did pick up an old copy of the book though, thinking it might be better than the movie. Not sure if I'll ever read it though.

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    1. I thought I had seen the movie lots of times, Peggy, but our list says last time was 2005 and who knows when before that. So I will have to try it again soon. I found the book interesting, but not fun.

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  3. This is definitely a harsh look at family life, isn't it, Tracy? And, honestly, none of the characters is really appealing. Still, it's a powerful story, I think.

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    1. Cain writes well, Margot, and he keeps me reading. I definitely will be reading more of his books.

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  4. Deep down I prefer the movie as my tastes rarely run to this kind of melodrama (especially because it can be so darn depressing) but I did quite enjoy his Can - I think it is one of his longest book but I doubt anyone thinks it is his best.

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    1. I will have to watch the movie again soon, Sergio. This is the kind of book I am glad I read but did not really enjoy it. I would not mind seeing the HBO miniseries someday.

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  5. Did not realize Cain wrote Mildred Pierce (probly shouldn't have admitted that). Did see part of the miniseries with Kate Winslett, but not enuf to know what it was about (I was in love with Winslett--another confession I should not be making). Thanks for bringing me up to speed with your excellent review, Tracy!

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    1. Mathew, I always assumed that anything James M. Cain was too hard-boiled, noir, or grim for me, so did not pay that much attention to his books. Maybe some of his books are all of that, but the two I have read were well worth reading... and I will try others. Kate Winslett is gorgeous, so I can understand, but I have not seen many of her movies. I saw Enigma and Sense and Sensibility. Someday I will give the HBO version of Mildred Pierce a shot.

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  6. Tracy, I think the first half of the 20th century was a difficult period for families everywhere, what with two wars and the Great Depression, and this reflected in many novels set in that period. I'm familiar with the novel and the Kate Winslet miniseries though I'd probably watch the serial first.

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    1. Prashant, this is a good book for depicting the effects of the Great Depression, although Mildred suffered not so much because of her drive and ambition (and some luck). I cannot remember if I have said this before here, but from what I read the mini-series is very close to the book. One of the reasons I would like to see it someday. There are also some very good actors in the mini-series.

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  7. Missed this earlier review but wanted to say how much I loved this book. James M. Cain's narrative was gripping. I could hardly put it down. --Keishon

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    1. I do remember how much you liked this book, Keishon. I am very glad I read it finally, and it motivates me to read more by James M. Cain.

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