James. M. Cain – Mildred Pierce
This vintage classic (published 1941) pulled me in out of simple curiosity inspired by the recent television mini-series starring Kate Winslet. The old Joan Crawford film had a melodramatic, film noir feel to it that is very misleading as regards the original story. The book is atypical and stands apart from the rest of the Cain detective story oeuvre. Instead it is a psychologically probing character piece about a woman with a very definite set of values and motivations, indelibly set within a certain time and place-- early Depression middle America. Even though the book is so time-specific, it nevertheless resonates with today’s belt-tightening, pride-swallowing, recession-weary times.
The story opens with Mildred, driven by pride and humiliation, kicking her husband Bert out of the house. Bert is really a sweet guy, and he loves Mildred and their two children, but he’s disappointed her because he’s failed at business, failed to support his family, and is having an affair--hence the humiliation. She gets the house and the car, but she’s still beset by encroaching poverty. So she does the unthinkable and takes a waitressing job, a desperate move for which her social-climbing daughter never ceases to demean and punish her. Even after Mildred builds a hugely successful business and is earning enough money to support all the slackers in her life, she still feels diminished, like she's being looked down upon by the world. She yearns for love, but when she holds it in her hand, she has a need to seek out and magnify its flaws.
The one person in her life who Mildred cannot win over to her side is her daughter, Veda, who ends up being the most interesting character in the novel. Veda is a monster of manipulativeness, who manages to wrap everyone around her finger. Her singing teacher is the one who sees her most clearly and provides the most succinct analysis of her character; he says that she’s blessed with a God-given gift of a voice—one in a million-- but as a human being she’s a poisonous snake who loves nobody but “her own goddam self”. He’s so right there.
There are other fascinating characters, like Mildred’s snobby nemesis Mrs. Forrester; Lucy, the neighbor with both a heart of gold and her own self-interested motives; and Monty-- the man whom Mildred loves but can’t respect. Monty is a most interesting combination of rakish romanticism and pathetic nobility. The book is full of slang of the type that you find in hardboiled detective fiction from the 30’s and 40’s by authors like Cain and Raymond Chandler-- i.e., “That’s the trick, baby” and “Yee gods and little fishes”-- but I found this added to the fun, and was not at all annoying. The novel is not kind to any of its characters, and it is sad to the core, but it’s very, very good.
Having just finished watching the HBO miniseries, I really admired it from all angles...it was faithful to the tone of the book, without the soap. Kate Winslet portrays Mildred as clearly torn between her many competing roles and desires. The acting throughout was superb, and the set design and overall look of the film (director Todd Haynes is a genius!) was very detailed and true to the period. I loved the lingering shots of 1930's radios, automobiles, clothes, and a gleaming Vulcan commercial cookstove.