Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter. Out of these elements, James M. Cain created a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

My take: 3 looks
First of all, if you have seen the movie, you have NOT experienced the book. Among other things, the book is a straight character study, and the movie is more action packed. Characters are removed and downplayed, and Veda is not quite the viper that she is in the book. But, most importantly, Monte does not die in the novel, and Veda never goes to jail. That portion of the story was invented by the filmmakers because the censorship code of the time required that evildoers be punished for their misdeeds. HBO recently redid the story, starring Kate Winslet, and it is said to be much truer to the novel.

With that being said, this was a doozy of a book. Mildred is a complex character. She doesn't take much off of her husband Bert, divorcing him quite early in the story, but will go back time and again to lesser men who care for nothing but a piece of her tail and some of her money. Yet she opens herself repeatedly to her eldest daughter Veda after numerous heinous verbal attacks. It is quite clear that Veda despises her mother through and through, evident to Mildred, but that makes Mildred only try harder to meet her expectations.

Veda is a viper of a daughter. She reminded me very much of Sarah Jane, a character in Imitation of Life. The difference is that Sarah Jane had some redemption at the end, although it was too late. Veda is a viper all the way through. She has firm respect for the one person who insults her to the core by letting her know that she has no talent at the piano. Everyone is furious with this man, but Veda inwardly admires him.

A very interesting character study, to be sure. But I have to wonder: what kind of characters are these? What is Cain trying to get across? That Mildred could survive, thrive and reinvent herself during and after the depression and Prohibition, only to crumble at the hands of her daughter? That mothers are gluttons for punishment? Did Ray stand for wholesomeness, which was crushed; while Veda stood for evil, which prospered?

And the men in their lives. Bert, who Mildred tossed away in favor of Wally, and later Monty, was the one stalwart  presence in her life, and she continued to go to him when she really needed advice. She had no respect for him, and yet he was the only one she respected.

I will ruminate on this one for months, I am sure. It was a very interesting book, and one that I recommend. If you read it, give me a call. We'll discuss it!


  1. A bit late but I’ve just watched the HBO 2011 series on Mildred Pierce. I read the book years ago and found it deeply disturbing. Particularly the mother daughter conflicts. I can only think Cain knew of such a relationship in order to depict it so well. I have also seen such a relationship first hand and it had much resonance and so true as well. Such was the awful power of the daughter, that the mother was almost transfixed by it, like a rabbit in the headlights and her only way, as a “caring mother”to try to deal with it was to give more gifts and money etc. This is a daughter/ person who is basically a sociopath and can never get to experience a close loving relationship with anyone. That’s just her character - and she has the talent, beauty and conniving to get what she wants in life.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I am blown away by your personal experience with a person like Veda. I like to think of her as a caricature of several bad people rolled into one for the purpose of storytelling, but your reminder is all too real: such people do exist. Writing like Cain's made for excellent films during the noir heyday in Hollywood. I recommend you read his others, as well.