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.

17 thoughts on “Book review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

  1. OK I’m convinced to do this for my book vs adaptation series – I thought I had read this book years ago but it’s not sounding familiar…however you have made an excellent case for it and I shall track it and the film down post haste.

    • I thought of you when I saw that Guy Pearce plays the love-interest in the Kate Winslet version 😉

  2. Maxine – I must admit I have not read James M Cain books yet. I’ve seen the films based on TPART and DI, and for whatever reason I have postponed reading both books. Now I have included also MP in the list of must reads thanks to your excellent post. I’m glad Bernadette notice it for another one of her excellent posts on books vs adaptation series. Cheers.

      • Double Indemnity is really a novella. Under 100 pages as I recall. But it’s lots of fun. The movie version is also excellent. Raymond Chandler wrote the dialogue for it.

        • It will be refreshing after the too-many 500-plus-page novels I’ve read recently- nothing wrong with length so long as it is appropriate, but not if it is padding! I have seen the movie of DI but too long ago to remember much. I liked the remake of Postman, with Jessica Lange (one of my favourite actresses). I think Jack Nicholson was in it too, not one of my favourites.

  3. Ditto. Excellent case to reading the book and viewing the newer film. Of course, I grew up seeing the Joan Crawford version. However, I like Kate Winslet and will add this movie to my TBS (To Be Seen) list.

    • From memory, the Kate version is more understated, and of course it really depicts the book properly as it is 5 hours long rather than the length of a movie.

  4. Maxine – That Joan Crawford movie is darkly excellent; thanks for reminding me of both it and the novel. I admit I haven’t seen the Kate Winslet remake (although I like her work in general), but I’ve heard it’s very well done too. Thanks too for this excellent review. I’ve no idea why there was such a long wait for Mildred Pierce to be published in the UK.; it seems odd that it wouldn’t have been published there a long time ago. And as to your comment about members of one gender being able to write characters of the other, I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a matter of gender when it comes to the ability to create memorable characters. It’s a matter of talent. Cain had talent.

    • Very strange, I agree, Margot. The Kate Winslet miniseries is uncompromosing, very different from commercial TV programmes with all their silly formulae, etc. Impressive that someone put all that money and effort into something so “real”.

  5. Pingback: Mildred Pierce by James M Cain | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  6. Hey Maxine, I read Double Indemnity last year and enjoyed it. I reviewed it as well but I don’t think it’s worth linking to for fear of spoilers. The ending eluded me so I’d like to get your opinion on it if you should ever read and review it.

  7. I haven’t read any books by this author but I’m glad a film remake has encouraged the release of a forgotten book. It’s possible I have seen the original film – I watched a lot of that type of this when I was a teenager but I don’t remember it at all. Thanks for the review.

  8. As it happens I’ve got a copy of the Picador edition of the “Five Great Novels Of James M Cain” published by Pan in 1985 and on the fly leaf it says that “Mildred Pierce” was originally published in Great Britain by Robert Hale in 1943!! The other stories were published also in the UK:-
    The Postman Always Rings Twice 1934
    Double Indemnity 1945
    The Butterfly 1949
    Serenade 1938
    Reading your review reminded me that I was going to reread Mildred Pierce as I got a copy of part one of the Kate Winslet DVD a few days ago. I hope it is as good as the book.

    • Thanks, Terry. I got the info from the publisher’s website so what they meant (in retrospect!) is that it is the first time Orion published it! They did not mention that another publisher had, previously. Cheeky, but typical of publishers. Thanks for the other info, I am looking forward to reading some of his others – the Kate Winslet DVD version of MP is superb I think.

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