I love when a book or author surprises you. I had never read any James M. Cain before and had been recommended him many times, DOUBLE IMDEMNITY in particular, but I had never heard of MILDRED PIERCE before. I had no knowledge of the Joan Crawford film and only came across it via the new HBO mini-series starring Kate Winslet. It wasn’t until I began watching that did I even realized that MILDRED PIERCE was based on a novel by James M. Cain.
My preconceived idea of a James M. Cain novel is of hardboiled crime and classic American noir, which MILDRED PIERCE is definitely not (despite the UK publisher including it in the “Crime Masterworks” series and Wikipedia describing it as “hardboiled”). It is what I think of as an American classic: sparse, precise writing with so much packed into its 300 pages. At times I was reminded of Richard Yates as Cain also brutally examines the realities of the American Dream and, apart from REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, is superior to Yates in many ways.
The novel is set in 1930s Los Angeles. America is still gripped by The Depression but things are slowly beginning to turn around. The story opens with Mildred having an awakening and deciding she has had enough of her two-timing husband and, in a bold move for the time, kicks him out of the house. Mildred Pierce is a fascinating character. On the one hand she is fiercely independent. Despite now being a single mother of two children she is determined not to fall below her station and goes about building a new life for herself through her own business that she grows from scratch into something significant. But the pride that helps her out of trouble is also her greatness weakness and an inferiority complex eats away at her and at times is used against her.
The HBO series is amazing and is one of those rare adaptations that capture the novel perfectly. But as always the book is even more impressive. This is a true classic whose story still resonates today. I wish this were books written today that pack the same punch as Cain does with MILDRED PIERCE.