Decades before Kate Winslet played her in the 2011 HBO miniseries, and years before Joan Crawford played her in the 1945 film that won her an Oscar, Mildred Pierce was a character in a Great American novel by James M. Cain.
In case you have never met her, the fictional turned cinematic Mildred Pierce is an attractive, but not too attractive 1930s housewife and mother of two from the LA suburb of Glendale, California. Her story begins when she throws her cheating husband out. Then after a few false starts at a job search she goes on to own a successful chain of restaurants--quite a feat during the Great Depression.
Mildred has great legs and makes great pies and she's got moxie--or what today would be called an entrepreneurial spirit. And with that spirit she parlays a home based pie making enterprise into a local waffle/chicken/pie cafe. Next she expands into Beverly Hills with a more upscale sandwich shop. And eventually she opens a steakhouse in Laguna Beach. Along the way, Prohibition ends and she gets a liquor license. And she starts to "keep" a no good man--even though or maybe because she knows he is no good.
Did we mention that she has a daughter Veda who is as ambitious as she is? And that they have a challenging relationship? And that Veda wants to enter show business and be a debutante?
Did we mention the supporting cast of waitresses, bootlegging next-door-neighbors, society hostesses from Pasadena, music teachers, Herbert Hoover and FDR?
To recap--There's the heroine who is a single mother, there is a troubled mother/daughter relationship, there is a stream of no good men, there's the Great Depression, there's a Southern California setting , there are great 1930s clothes and a family business which happens to involve homemade (these days we'd say "artisan") pies.
You can see why this is book group GOLD!
And we are blessed that HBO got to make the miniseries, rather than the Lifetime Channel or the new Oprah network.
If you decide to read it for book group, you can get Mildred Pierce in a new Vintage Crime/Black Lizard paperback edition--I got mine at Keplers Bookstore--or you can order it on your Kindle.
If you live in the SF Bay Area and want to discuss the book, the film and the miniseries and have brunch in a group led by me and Nick Szegda, join us on Sunday, June 5th at 1 p.m. at the Menlo Park Recreation Center at 701 Laurel Street. It's FREE!
Just so you know, nobody gets murdered in the book or in the faithfully adapted HBO version of Mildred Pierce--even though the Joan Crawford film opens with a smoking gun.
And there's more California sunshine than noir.
But the dialogue is hard boiled.
Here's an example in which Mildred's hard boiled next-door-neighbor, Mrs. Gessler, advises the newly single Mildred to cook dinner for her date, the lawyer Wally Burgan, rather than allow him to take her out on the town:
If you bought his dinner and cooked it for him the way only you can cook, and you just happened to look cute in that little apron, and something just happened to happen, then its Nature, Old Mother Nature, baby and we all know she's no bum. Because that grass widow*, she went back to the kitchen, where all women belong, and that makes it all right. And Wally, he's not paid up, even a little bit. He even forgot to ask the price of the chips. He'll find out. And another thing, this way is quick, and the last I heard of you, you were up against it and couldn't afford to waste much time. You play it right, and inside of a week your financial situation will be greatly eased, and inside of a month you'll have him begging for the chance to buy that divorce. The other way, making the grand tour of all the speako's he knows, it could go on for five years, and even then you couldn't be sure."
"You think I want to be kept?"
*A grass widow, in case you are wondering, is an old term for a newly single woman--single either because of separation or divorce. Some think that this expression derived from the Victorian era in which military wives of British soldiers and merchants in India, were sent to grassy hill stations during heat waves, while their husbands remained on duty in the cities. Others say that it is an even older, perhaps French, expression for a woman of loose morals who could be "taken" in a field of grass rather than a proper bed. You can have fun discussing this at book group.
Here's the link to the HBO series and discussion boards--so far there is no DVD.
Here is the link to the New Yorker article about the HBO series and about writer James M. Cain:
Here's the part of the New Yorker article by Hilton Als, that tells about the real life woman who Mildred Pierce was based upon:
Cain had recently befriended a woman named Kate Cummings, who did perhaps more than anyone else to urge him toward a more sympathetic and complex view of women’s need for both conventionality and freedom. Cummings, the single mother of the actress Constance Cummings, had sacrificed her own prospects as a singer to get her daughter the training and the exposure she needed to become a star. What Cain saw of Kate’s life—and the nearly selfless love with which she made Constance’s career happen—may have jump-started his imagination. After creating two antiheroines, probably inspired by Hemingway’s view of woman-as-death, Cain paid homage to his friend’s indomitable spirit. He set out to explore what one of his characters would call “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support.” As he was writing, employing the third person and creating a female protagonist for the first time, Cummings stood over him, prodding him to revise whenever she felt that his perceptions of a working mother did not ring true. When “Mildred Pierce” was finally published, in 1941, Cain’s alternately stilted and full-bodied portrait of a striving woman was well received, but few reviewers noted the fact that the novel was also a study of a woman who, time after time, subjugates her own needs to those of her child. Quote from it at book group and you will sound very impressive. Here's part of a review by Los Angeles Times book critic, David Ulin who recently took a look at the book, perhaps inspired by the miniseries:
"To read "Mildred Pierce" now is to experience a double vision, in which we confront both how much and how little things have changed.
When Mildred and her husband, Bert, fight in the first scene of the novel, it is with an urgency that's impossible not to recognize.
"They spoke quickly," Cain writes, "as if they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit. Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty."
Here's the link to the comparision between book, HBO series and film from Jesse Kornbluth at a terrific arts, culture and film blog called Head Butler: http://www.headbutler.com/books/fiction/mildred-pierce Says Jessie: Most parents have, at one time or another, a child whose ingratitude is sharper than a serpent's tooth. Well, here's the worst case --- read/watch it and weep for Mildred, then count your blessings. Here's the link to the classic 1945 film starring Joan Crawford: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037913 At book group serve pie.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...