Book review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce
by James M Cain
Phoenix (Orion), 2011
First published in the USA 1941
First published in the UK 2002

It’s amazing to me that this novel had to wait more than 60 years for a UK publication*. It’s a splendid book, tightly constructed, well-written and, above all, a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman, the titular Mildred. The fact that the novel is written by a man is the clearest proof one needs that one does not need to be the same gender as one’s subject in order to “get” that person and present a full character study.

The 200-page novel is set in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles between Hollywood and Pasadena. Bert Pierce had earlier sold off his family land and has, in the shadow of the Depression, come to grief in his attempt to build “Pierce Homes”, a commuter suburb. He, his wife Mildred and their two daughters Veda and Ray live in one of the ex-Pierce homes, but with no visible means of income, relations are strained. The book opens with the end of their marriage as Mildred makes pies in the kitchen to sell for parties and the like, but Bert slopes off to be with his mistress, eternally absent but amusingly portrayed.

Left alone with two young daughters, Mildred would do anything to give them the life to which she herself once aspired. She struggles to find work, accepts humiliations, and eventually is reduced to serving in a diner – ten years of marriage had not prepared her for anything better, according to the woman at the employment agency. Soon, Mildred perceives a business opportunity, and the novel tells the tale of her rise to prominence and riches through hard work and determination – and not a little to do with her good nature in regard to Bert, his ex-partner Wally, and other, later, characters.

In these bare bones, the author provides not just a perfect, convincing portrait of day to day life in that place and time, but also presents a remarkable picture of Mildred’s inner life, as she lives through setback, awful tragedy, prejudice and rivalry. The lynchpin of all of this is her relationship with her daughter Veda – another sharply observed character study – which starts out as being one of a typically ambitious mother for her daughter but, as the novel nears its end, is revealed as having much darker dynamics than that.

Mildred Pierce is a remarkable novel. It beautifully depicts its time and its setting; it provides some terrifically well-observed minor characters in the men and women Mildred meets along the way of her journey; and above all it is a clean dissection of a tempestuously jealous relationship. None of it has dated a bit, to the contrary, its convincing depiction of the passion and scheming hatred that exist between a mother and daughter has probably never been bettered since. I can’t recommend it too highly as a book with a melodramatic theme but handled in the opposite of a melodramatic fashion.

I bought my copy of this book.

There is an old film of Mildred Pierce (starring Joan Crawford) but there is also a truly excellent remake, starring Kate Winslet, made by Sky Atlantic. It is available on DVD and is a mesmeric adaptation, missing out compared with the novel only in its hesitation in depicting the darkness in Mildred towards the end, when her emotions are more fully revealed to the reader.

James M Cain is perhaps best known as a crime novelist, though he wrote many other books and journalism. His most famous books, in addition to Mildred Pierce, are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. From the preface to Double Indemnity:

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.

* 9 July. Correction. See comment below from Terry Halligan about 1st UK publication in 1943, and my response.