Thursday, February 28, 2019

Book 170: Mildred Pierce

"She felt wretched, wished Veda would come over to her, so she could take her in her arms and tell her about it in some way that didn't seem so shame-faced. But Veda's eyes were cold, and she didn't move. Mildred doted on her, for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery, which hinted at things superior to her own commonplace nature. But Veda doted on her father, for his grand manner and fine ways, and if he disdained gainful work, she was proud of him for it." 

Dates read: August 16-20, 2017

Rating: 6/10

One of my ongoing life projects (besides, of course, reading 500 books over the course of my 30s) is to watch all the movies that have won "major Oscars". For me, that's Picture, Director, the acting categories, documentary, and foreign language film. This is something I've been loosely trying to do for probably a decade. I've done all of the movies that are available either streaming or on DVD from Netflix for Picture, Actor, Actress, and most-but-not-all of Supporting. Less progress through Documentary and Foreign Language. It's been an interesting journey...some of the movies, even the older ones, are fantastic (I loved It Happened One Night and The Apartment). Others are not (too many to list, honestly). But seeing how the ways that stories are told both change and stay the same is fascinating.

So before I picked up James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, I'd already seen the Joan Crawford movie version. Which meant I knew the general idea of the plot, but this isn't the kind of story that's "ruined" if you know how it goes. It tells the story of the titular character, a wife and mother of two during the Depression era. Before the crash, her husband had supported his family through investment income, but is too proud to work for a living when that's no longer an option. He's decided to perk up his spirits by having an affair, and Mildred kicks him out of the house pretty much right off the bat. Desperate to keep the roof over her and her daughters' heads, she tries to figure out how to make money. Her side business selling cakes and pies isn't enough, and so even though she tries to find a white collar position, she finally has no choice but waitressing.

She's embarrassed to be forced into this service role...not just because it's hard for her personally, but because she's afraid of what her daughter Veda will think. The older of the girls, Veda is spoiled and selfish and snobby, and Mildred is completely devoted to her. Eventually, Mildred's hard work and a bit of luck lead her to open her own restaurant and attract the attentions of handsome socialite Monte, which Veda loves because his social connections open up an entire world of wealth to the now-aspiring musician. But Monte's fortunes fall, and soon he's taking Mildred's money but making no moves toward marriage. So she leaves him, but before long her relationship with Veda flounders. So Mildred and Monte renew their romance, though this leads to the ruin of everything Mildred holds dear.

The movie, to me, was in some respects more successful than the book. Some plot lines were cut and some were significantly changed to comply with the Code. In the book, Mildred's obsession with her daughter reads as almost romantic, which both explains why she clings to her so hard but honestly is also creepy. Mildred onscreen comes off as doormat-y as Joan Crawford was capable of being, but in the book she's got more moxie. Her rise also feels more organic, as it develops more slowly, and therefore all the more hard to read about as it starts to crumble underneath her. Cain created a great character in Mildred...she's clearly fundamentally good but not without flaws, with the kind of scrappiness that makes her easy to root for.

The characters around her, though, are flat: Veda's just a bitch with nothing redeeming about her, Monte's obvious trash, her business partner is totally shady. The plot hinges on Mildred's love for Veda, and although I've known of plenty of parents of brats that think they're just misunderstood geniuses, that she would so consistently overlook her daughter's harshness (especially when she's clearly capable of knowing when to push people away) strains the bounds of credulity. It's not a question of whether Mildred is going to destroy herself for her daughter's sake, but when and how. Cain's writing isn't particularly smooth or insightful, either. It's not a bad book or a waste of time, but it's not good enough that I'd affirmatively recommend it. If you like domestic dramas or want to read the source material of a story that's been adapted twice (there's also the Kate Winslet miniseries from several years back), it's worth a read. Otherwise, skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: Henry and Cato 

Two years ago, I was reading: A Leg To Stand On

Three years ago, I was reading: The Big Rewind 

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