I was browsing the Amazon Prime videos one night. They’ve got a selection of HBO series these days, and one of them was the miniseries Mildred Pierce, starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood. I watched it for a few minutes, the setting, the mood of the show was intriguing. Glendale California, 1931. Mildred Pierce is making a cake (always a good beginning in my book), her husband comes in, they argue about a woman he’s been seeing. He leaves.
But knowing that it was first a book, I stopped watching. I’m a reader first and a TV watcher second. So I might binge-rewatch one too many episodes of Gilmore Girls, but that usually happens in the background while I’m reading a book. (yes, I know, I really shouldn’t).
Off went the show, pulled up the Firefox and requested myself a copy from the library.
Of course the library copy had to have that Kate Winslet image on the cover! But I dug up some old covers just for you.
There is definitely an emphasis on the ‘passion’ in these two, although the first one kind of says “she’s having an affair” or “here, let’s turn your back to the door so that my partner-in-crime there can knock you senseless with his fist”. I can’t quite tell with the expressions on those men’s faces.
“Well, you’ve joined the biggest army on earth. You’re the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July — a grass widow with two small children to support.”
At any rate, Mildred Pierce is separated from her husband. She now has two kids to support – darling little Ray (her name is Moire but no one ever calls her that), and grown-up-too-fast Veda, snooty, who wants only what the rich kids want. Her husband’s real estate business has pretty much gone under although he still aspires for a better life. Mildred takes on a waitressing job, at first despairing at having her children know that she has to wear a uniform and wait on tables (and have her legs felt up). So she doesn’t tell them about it until Veda finds out. Then somehow gathers enough to start up her own restaurant – chicken, waffles and pie. And business takes off. Her life seems to be blossoming. She meets a rich playboy. Veda takes up the piano. She slogs away at the restaurant. Everything she does is for her children. And perhaps it is all too much.
Ugh that Veda. She really is that kind of character you just have to dislike. Yes, she is a terror, and yes, Mildred had her hand in that. But Veda is so very pretentious and vicious and hateful despite what seems like a pleasant enough middle-class upbringing. The LA Review of Books called her “the single most hideous offspring in modern literature”. (This article by the way, has some fun insights into James M Cain’s background). And the movie version, starring Joan Crawford, even turned Veda into a murderer.
Although the movie takes a rather dramatic departure from the book, Cain’s tale of suburban noir is masterful and dark and is the kind of story that makes you wonder what secrets your neighbours hide. In Mildred’s case, there is passion for sure, affairs and such, plenty of alcohol although Prohibition is going on. But despite all that sunshine in the Golden State, there is a shadow that looms over the Pierce family.
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1977, Cain said that his books are love stories:
“This girl came to interview me the other day. She must have spent the whole trip thinking up the question: How do I see myself as part of the Literature of Violence? I take no interest in violence. There’s more violence in Macbeth and Hamlet than in my books. I don’t write whodunits. You can’t end a story with the cops getting the killer. I don’t think the law is a very interesting nemesis. I write love stories. The dynamics of a love story are almost abstract. The better your abstraction, the more it comes to life when you do it—the excitement of the idea lurking there. Algebra. Suspense comes from making sure your algebra is right. Time is the only critic. If your algebra is right, if the progression is logical, but still surprising, it keeps.”
Mildred Pierce was a surprisingly good read. It was a great depiction of life in America in the 1930s – Depression, Prohibition and all those times of struggle. But what I liked most was that it was a story of suburban life, the desperation and despair, the hope and helplessness, the successes and the sadness. I guess I never quite expected that it would be a story that I would feel that desperate need to finish, to read through the night and put it down and think, ok I really need to write about this in the hopes that someone else would see this post of mine and read the book and like it too.
And let me say it again: fried chicken, waffles and pie.
James M Cain (July 1, 1892 – October 27, 1977) was born in Maryland. He wanted to be a singer but his mother, an opera singer, told him his voice wasn’t good enough. So after college, he wrote for Baltimore American and then the Baltimore Sun.
Our Government (1930)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
Mildred Pierce (1941)
Love’s Lovely Counterfeit (1942)
Career in C Major and Other Stories (1943)
Double Indemnity (1943) (first published in Liberty Magazine, 1936)
The Embezzler (1944) (first published as Money and the Woman, Liberty Magazine, 1938)
Past All Dishonor (1946)
The Butterfly (1947)
The Moth (1948)
Sinful Woman (1948)
Jealous Woman (1950)
The Root of His Evil (1951) (also published as Shameless)
The Magician’s Wife (1965)
Rainbow’s End (1975)
The Institute (1976)
The Baby in the Icebox (1981); short stories
Cloud Nine (1984)
The Enchanted Isle (1985)
The Cocktail Waitress
I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge – A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title