Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mildred Pierce

It occurred to me that I have been ignoring this blog for way too long even though I have been reading constantly. I must admit that I have fallen back on my schedule - 10 books behind last week now reduced to just 5 books - but I've been working my way through it. I have made remarkable progress in my attempts to include American authors, straying away from my comfort zone of British writers. Ray Bradbury and F. Scott Fitzgerald being the two I finally crossed off my list. While I loved their writing and found salient features in both, Farenheit 451 and The Great GatsbyJames M. Cain's Mildred Pierce, the most recent book that I've put back on the shelf, has brought me back to this blog. Why? Because I read through this unputdownable book with a grimace.

Mildred Pierce is a middle-class housewife of a cheating husband, Bert, and mother to precocious and arrogant Veda and unassuming Ray. Set during the Great Depression, and at a time when Mildred finally decides to get her husband out of her life, this is a story of giving it all in the name of saving face in society. Finances in the Pierce household are low so taking the advice of her neighbor Mrs. Gessler, Mildred first tries to be a 'kept woman'. Her husband's former business advisor Wally, though he takes to her bed, doesn't oblige with money and Mildred is driven to find a job as a waitress, because that is the only thing she is qualified for.
Quite quickly Mildred realizes that instead of waitressing she could be making and selling pies, since she's good at cooking. Eventually, as her pie business picks up, she decides to open her own restaurant - serving chicken, waffles and pies. Till this point, Mildred hides the fact that she has to put on a uniform and serve from her children, especially Veda, fearing what her reaction might be. Veda does throw a fit but when she realizes that Mildred will now be running her own restaurant soon backs her mother. Ray, Mildred's second daughter, falls sick and dies over a weekend when Mildred is out frolicking with her new lover Monty. Though her death rattles Mildred she is glad that it wasn't Veda, and Veda, in turn, enjoys her mother's financial success as her restaurant goes through its phases.
Veda, always a materialistic person, fakes a pregnancy to try and extort money from a rich boyfriend of hers and is kicked out of the house by Mildred when she finds out. But when Veda makes it big with her singing voice, which is powerful and sought after, Mildred decides that she must reconcile with her daughter. She does, right after her marriage with Monty, who has now lost all his wealth and is saved only because Mildred offers to buy his old house.
With Monty and Veda now living off her, Mildred resorts to manipulating the books at her restaurants to furnish their fancy lifestyle. It is only when Wally, now representing Mildred's investors, suggests that Veda ought to start paying a share of her earnings to help Mildred out does Mildred walk in on Monty, her husband, in bed with Veda. Veda gloats that they, Monty and she, had planned this all along. Their affair, the money. In her rage, Mildred chokes Veda causing her to lose her voice and subsequently her contract.
In the ensuing divorce from Monty, Veda returns to Mildred, seemingly repenting her actions when she realizes that the press will not let go of the fact that there was something 'funny' in her relationship with her step-father. In a few months, however, when Bert and Mildred remarry, realizing that they are meant for each other, Veda, in her normal voice, tells Mildred that she's leaving for New York with Monty so that she may sign up a more lucrative deal than the one she previously had. Realizing that once again she had been duped by the daughter she had given everything for, Mildred finally agrees with Bert - "to hell with Veda", she says.

Now, while the story is very captivating and keeps you turning pages, I still had a sense of 'em, really?' all through it. I loved the fact that Mildred, as a single mother in the '30's, took it upon herself to run her family. She became a business woman and pulled herself out of the path to poverty, though she had no education. She used what she was good at and provided for her family. Her devotion to Veda, admirable as it was, is a bit unsettling, especially given the way Veda treats her. Veda's character I despise. Honestly, no child should be treating her mother like that! And no mother, when bestowed with a child like that, should simply let it go, knowing that it may be the ruin of her most beloved child!
All of the supporting characters play important enough roles, more sensible ones at most times!

Mildred Pierce is a good read. It isn't empowering but there is a smattering of it. It is ruthless - a part of human nature, if you will - and does make one wonder what happened to common sensibilities, even if ruled by blind emotion. While I enjoyed the book, I must admit that I'm glad I've stayed away from American novels for better part of my reading indulgences. It lives up to what a hardboiled novel should be.

I might watch the mini-series only because Kate Winslet played Mildred and Guy Pearce played Monty. There is nothing else that would appeal to me.