June 3, 2017

Book Review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

I started reading Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain a few months ago. Though I found it to be very entertaining, I put it down for one reason or another, and eventually it was due back at the library.

I decided to check it out again, and this time I simply couldn't put it down. The story takes place in Depression Era LA. It follows FMC Mildred Pierce amidst her financial and marital troubles. After getting fed up with her husband's unemployment and extramarital shenanigans, Mildred kicks him out of the house. With the bills coming in, she soon realizes she has to step up and find work to put food on the table and keep the roof over their heads. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress (much to the haughty disapproval of her spoiled daughter Veda).

Being the ambitious woman she is, she doesn't stop there. Her side business (baking pies) begins to take off after she convinces her new boss to buy and sell her pies instead of wasting his money on his old subpar vendor. Soon, she can't shake the idea that she should open her own restaurant. But it doesn't end there. She's driven and she'll stop at nothing, whatever it takes to provide for her family.

Mildred is a strong independent female character (before that was a thing).Typically women in this era (and genre) played one of two roles. Cain breaks away from that and presents Mildred, despite her many flaws, as what we might call a "modern woman" (for better or worse).

She's not a great mother (seriously, Veda is a god-awful child that deserves more than the occasional slap to the face she gets), but Mildred typically makes an effort. After all, she's a working mother with secret lover(s), and drama with her ex so her priorities have shifted.

I was struck by just how believable of a character Mildred was (all things considered). We often see female novelists write from a male POV, but rarely do we see that sort of gender swap go in the other direction, much less in 1941. It can be a bit like a soap opera at times, which is possibly why it was made into the iconic Joan Crawford film in the 40's. The story itself takes a slightly softer approach to the typical high testosterone hard-boiled style (still plenty of implied sex, booze, & cursing). Some of the hard-boiled stuff out there, while entertaining, can be overwhelmingly objectifying and dismissive of women (not to mention, shockingly racist). Cain carves out that middle road keeping in the best aspects of the genre and leaving out the worst.

Pros: It has a wonderful literary style, nuanced characters, timeless classic, page turner, the female MC makes for a wonderful little step outside of the usual Hard-boiled detective.

Cons: It could have been a bit cleaner in that it had a similar appeal as reality television. I was unable to relate to any of the characters, but still wanted to stand on the sideline and get swept up in their personal drama.

There are many books that I'll never pick up again, but this definitely isn't one of them. After reading a copy from the library, this has made it to the top of my need to own a personal copy list. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone so long as they're neither easily scandalized nor expecting a redemption story.

If you get a chance to read it, come back and let me know what you think!

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