Fiction: “Mildred Pierce” by James M. Cain

Mildred PierceA couple of weeks ago I was in Boston to see a show (Icarus by Liars and Believers), and I had two hours to kill in-between dropping Jennifer off to do her stage managing thing and when the house opened.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t bring a book with me – because seriously, guys: I am the 31-year-old Rory Gilmore – I am always bringing a book to read.  (Just last week, when everyone but me fell sick with severe migraines or something and I was the only one on my weekly pub trivia team to make it, the trivia masters [who had gotten to know me by that point] were both amused and astounded at the fact that there I was, playing trivia by myself at the bar, reading a book on the Boston and New York subway systems.  They truly didn’t know what to do with that information; nor could they get over the fact that I managed to read more than thirty pages in the din.) But the book I was reading when I was in Boston was a library book, and since the last time I traveled with a library book I accidentally left it in Springfield and had to have a friend mail it back to me, I had left my reading material at home.

Luckily, the Oberon Theatre is within walking distance to the Harvard Bookstore, so I browsed its shelves for about half an hour, and during that time I found this book on its used book shelf on the lower level.

(I love buying used books.  You never know what you might find down there – plus, they’re less expensive than buying the book full-price, which in this instance, meant I could then read at this Belgian waffle shop and enjoy a Belgian waffle and a cafe mocha, instead of reading on the side of the road or in my car.)

So why did I pick this book up?  Well, let’s be real: there are TONS of movies I’ve never seen.  But a few have shown up on my TiVo over the years. And while I’ve always considered myself Bette Davis’s girl through and through, the one movie I’ve seen starring her nemesis, Joan Crawford, is the film of the same name: Mildred Pierce.

I think I originally watched it because, while it was one of those movies I Had To Watch, it hadn’t necessarily made it onto my List.  Also, as Bette Davis’s Girl, I wanted to see what her nemesis was really like.  To date, this is the only Joan Crawford film I’ve seen, but I’ve enjoyed it so much that I seem to watch it every time it shows up on TCM’s schedule (including the most recent airing on Mother’s Day).

Mildred Pierce is a hardworking mother who tries to do everything to keep her family solvent during the Great Depression.  Her husband, Bert, is unemployed and not really going after getting a new job – in addition, he’s playing gin rummy with Mrs. Biederhof on the daily, and I think you can infer that gin rummy is totally a euphemism.  Meanwhile, Mildred is trying to keep food on the table for her daughters, Ray and Veda, by making pies for the neighborhood.  In the first chapter of the novel (and the first five minutes of the film), Mildred kicks Bert out.  When making pies isn’t enough to keep her household afloat, Mildred feels forced to take a job as a waitress, as she doesn’t have the requisite experience to be a secretary.

Mildred quickly catches on to the restaurant business.  When she has customers complain about the store-bought pies at the diner where she works, she manages to convince the owner to purchase pies from her kitchen.  They’re better than the previous, and so both she and the diner start raking in additional money.

However, throughout this time, Mildred has been hiding her job from Veda.  An attitude cultivated before the book begins, Veda is haughty, proud, and condescending.  The Depression hit her family hard, but Veda refuses to appreciate hard work.  Mildred hides the fact that she’s a waitress because she doesn’t want to Veda to look down on her.  And when Veda finds her mother’s uniform in her closet, instead of asking Mildred if it’s hers, she instead gives it to their maid, pretending to operate under the assumption that the uniform must belong to the maid, there’s no way Mildred would wear it.  Veda plays dumb until Mildred admits her menial labor, and then Veda tears into her.

In her haste to redeem herself in front of her child, Mildred claims that she became a waitress so she could learn the restaurant business, as she intends to open a business.  That lie turns into a goal, and over the next year, Mildred becomes the owner of the appropriately-named Mildred’s, serving chicken, waffles, and pie.

She also has affairs with both Wally Burgen, a former coworker of Bert’s, and Monty Beragon, a shiftless loaf who used to have tons of money.  Veda takes a strong liking to not only Monty, but especially his lifestyle.  A polo player, a consummate drunk, and someone who practically throws money away: that is something to which Veda aspires.

Throughout the novel, Mildred attempts to bring Veda into line, but she always folds and instead spoils her even more rotten.  Veda can only have the best – and it is Veda that brings Mildred’s downfall.

The relationship between Mildred and Veda is the most toxic thing I’ve ever read – even more so than any Greek mythology; in terms of manipulation of their parental figures, I think Veda would give Dolores Haze a run for her money (though the situation with Dolores is remarkably different from that of Veda).  (I really need to reread Lolita.  Hopefully I won’t fall asleep through the last chapter this time.)

If you have seen the movie but not read the book (like me), there is a very big difference.  Based on the positive reception of his previous novellas’ adaptations (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice), they wanted to put a murder mystery into the film adaptation of Mildred Pierce.  So, spoiler alert for the book: no one dies.  Someone dies in the movie, but not in the book.

However — and I’m going to try to talk about it without spoiling it, because there’s a difference between spoiling Strangers on a Train which is a freakin’ trope and ruining the plot twist in what is an excellent movie that not many people nowadays have seen — I have to say that the murder and its resolution gives a better ending to the film’s version of Mildred.  In the film, the murderer gets caught and sent to jail — they get their comeuppance.  But in the book, because there is no crime committed, nothing is truly resolved.

That didn’t ruin my opinion of the book, however.  I read it very quickly — even between juggling The Race Underground and the Game of Thrones Project, which yes, is still going on.  If you can find a copy of the book, go ahead and read it.  But you have to watch the movie, too.

Grade for Mildred Pierce: 4 stars
(Bonus Grade for Mildred Pierce: The Movie: 4.5 stars)

OH PS: You’re probably wondering why Kate Winslet is on the cover of the book when all I’ve talked about is Joan Crawford.  Well, a few years ago, HBO turned Mildred Pierce into a miniseries, starring Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood, and it’s supposed to be a more faithful adaptation.  I can’t speak to that, as it’s currently sitting on my Netflix DVD queue, right behind the second and third seasons of Deadwood (I swear, the only reason I still get DVDs through Netflix is all the HBO stuff I’ve never seen).  I’ll let y’all know when I catch up.

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