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