Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

The rise and fall (and rise again?) of an American woman

I thought this would be light popular reading, musty perhaps, but instead I was impressed by this character study.  The book is also a glimpse into a particular culture (Los Angeles) at a particular time (the Depression). Mildred Pierce, abandoned by her kindly ineffectual husband, desperately needs money in order to keep a roof over the heads of her children. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress, then uses her pie making skills, supplemented by her shapely legs, gradually to reinvent herself as a wealthy woman. Her unreasonable devotion to her dreadful "artistic" daughter, Veda, however, ultimately causes her world to collapse.

I didn't love the book, however. It had a coldness for me, as I kept anticipating the anvil floating above Mildred's head.  Mildred needs money though Mildred has a weakness for handsome weakish men.  You root for Mildred Pierce because she's a go getter, she won't be beaten down. That part was typically American, and in some ways, since Mildred Pierce is unmoored, unchurched, typically Los Angeles. She gets her kids' names from a psychic.

The book is a study not only of just one woman, but of productive friendships between women and hierarchal enmity between women. Women bail Mildred Pierce out and she helps them in return, provides the best outlet for their talents. I'm not sure if the mother/daughter plot fit in that well with the pulling herself up by the bootstraps plot.  I didn't quite buy Mildred's behavior on behalf of Veda. Unless Veda is the idealized version of Mildred, the weapon she sends into high society to have her revenge.

The plotting was wonderful, unforced, except at the end when the soap opera like plot twists hurt my neck and harmed the story.  Until that point the novel was a naturalistic character study with planted interjections of shocking nudity and casual sex (and I was in fact shocked at how quickly Mildred falls into bed with men). At the end, however, the believability of Veda's operatic success become suspect.

Is Mildred Pierce a monster? Not at all. She strikes me as an efficient manager. She does what she has to do. Unlike Madame Bovary, she cannot rely on men for money, as the upper class men she sleeps with (Bert her husband and Monty her lover) are completely useless (financially, that is) after the Depression wiped away their wealth. So instead of taking rat poison after her world collapses, Mildred just "gets stinko" and lights the oven for more pie baking. Again, typically American.

The most spectacular scene in the book is the New Year's Eve party in the colossal downpour. Only a woman would do that, right, not be deterred by washed out roads to attend a party. An extremely vivid and well written scene.

There's also some humorous parts for someone reading the book in 2012. Mildred is always dashing between Pasadena and Newport Beach-- nowadays that would be about three hours each way.



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