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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Mildred Pierce

James M. Cain

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Mildred Pierce

Title: Mildred Pierce
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941
Length: 238 pages
Availability: Mildred Pierce - US
in Everyman's Library collection - US
Mildred Pierce - UK
Mildred Pierce - Canada
Mildred Pierce - India
Mildred Pierce - France
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  • Mildred Pierce was made into a film in 1945, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth
  • Mildred Pierce was made into a TV series in 2011, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood

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Our Assessment:

B : triumphs and tribulations, and too much melodrama

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Nation . 25/10/1941 .
The New Republic . 6/10/1941 S.E.Hyman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 5/10/1941 Robert van Gelder
The New Yorker . 27/9/1941 Clifton Fadiman
The New Yorker . 28/3/2011 Hilton Als
Saturday Rev. of Lit. . 4/10/1941 Phil Strong
Time . 29/9/1941 ,
TLS . 8/1/1944 R.D.Charques

  From the Reviews:
  • "If there are more vicious quarrels in print than those in which these characters indulge their sadism I have not seen them. (...) That this is a novel that, once begun, will almost surely be read to the end is understandable, for it has in it the deep, slow pull of the ancient ooze where worms and serpents crawled; it reflects no codes, no restrictions, and none but the primordial necessities. It is a bath in sensation." - Robert van Gelder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Mildred Pierce is the odd woman out in this gallery of moral ineptitude. Her aspirations are not for herself but for her children; she doesn’t want to be rich so much as she wants them to feel entitled. She’s a great believer in women’s rights, but she knows that, as second-class citizens, women can raise themselves up only through work. Mildred works hard so that Veda can realize her dreams. But Veda is more conventional than her mother and more of a performer; the only audience that interests her is male, and she sets out to upstage her mother with cunning and artifice." - Hilton Als, The New Yorker

  • "Mr. Cain's three fascinations are the Laocoönic stranglings of sex, money (or its lack) and snobbery. (...) His trouble is not knowing when to stop. His money gets so cold, his sex so hot, his snobbery so snakelike and his dirty work so predictably subhuman, that their victims are scarcely more than caricatures of human fallibility. But the drugstore-library sensationalism that still overhangs Cain's work does not stop him from being one of the most readable storytellers in the U.S." - Time

  • "This novel, by the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, is compounded of shrewdness, artifice, a brittle vivacity and a commanding of psychological penetration. It sports a toughness of sentiment that is perhaps not quite so modish as it was, and yet at the same time it performs feats of surgical analysis that are undeniably impressive. (...) It is all cleverly done, Mr.Cain's air of hard detachment steadily gaining in power in the somewhat gruesome domestic scenes of the closing pages." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mildred Pierce is a novel of post-Depression California. Herbert Pierce lost pretty much everything in the stock market crash of 1929, and he never really recovered, unwilling to take any real sort of job, preferring to fool around with a woman who isn't his wife. In 1931, at the beginning of the novel, Bert's wife, Mildred, is finally fed up and kicks him out.
       The novel follows her ups and downs and trials and tribulations for the next decade or so. She's a prideful creature, but does what she has to, sinking so low as to become a waitress in order to keep her house and support her two daughters, Ray (as the ridiculously named Moire is known) and Veda. A knack for pie-making and some good business sense eventually allow Mildred to achieve some success: she opens her own business, moving with the times in a way Bert can't (taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves along the way, such as the end of Prohibition, while Bert is stuck in the past).
       Bert remains a presence in Mildred's life, but there are also other men. Her situation now defines her. As a friend explains: "From now on you're fast." Mildred shows a bit of restraint (and usually pays for it when she doesn't), but does get involved with a few men, notably Monty Beragon -- a higher-class Bert (for whom Mildred is never quite classy enough).
       The real focus of Mildred's life -- and the destructive core of the novel -- is dear little Veda. Only eleven when the book begins, she's already "something to look at twice". She matures quickly, physically and otherwise -- most noticeably with:

two round, swelling protuberances that had appeared almost overnight on the high, arching chest. They would have been large, even for a woman: for a child of thirteen they were positively startling.
       Veda is a demanding little brat, with her own ideas about how things should be. She wants to live in style and expects nothing less. And too often Mildred gives in to her whims and demands. Too often, too, Mildred -- after initially reacting correctly -- tells Veda that the haughty girl was right after all. Veda is irredeemable from the start, but Mildred's treatment of her -- working to allow her to live in a "horsy, streamlined heaven" and not setting any boundaries -- eventually sets the stage for Veda to destroy her mother.
       Veda is, of course, the most entertaining character in the book, though Cain isn't willing to go all-out in revelling in her depravity. Instead their are only hints and suggestions -- such as when Monty first meets her and describes the encounter to Mildred: "She's the most delightful little thing I've met in a long time, but never mind about her." Monty helps introduce Veda to the lifestyle she craves -- but Cain focusses on the (comparatively) boring Mildred and her dreary pie-making.
       Mildred's rise and stumbles are closely chronicled: there's triumph over adversity and personal tragedy (dear little Ray, for example, goes opportunely by the wayside -- at the best melodramatic moment, too -- disposed of likely only that Mildred can feel that "guilty, leaping joy" that it was Ray, not Veda). Each move up comes with a loss or price -- and usually something to do with Veda.
       Veda has a musical gift -- though what she's best at is manipulating people. She leaves school early and does what she has to to get ahead -- and get ahead she does. Cain even shows glimpses of a human side to her, but the monster within dominates.
       Mildred always thinks she can get her daughter back, and ultimately it's all she cares about: she'd sacrifice everything else for her. And in the end, of course, she pretty much does. Not that it helps.
       Veda finds success -- as a coloratura, no less -- but Mildred can't share in it. As someone explains to Mildred, "All coloratura, they got, 'ow you say ? -- da gimmies. Always take, never give."

       Mildred Pierce is an odd novel. It is an effective portrayal of the economic turmoil of 1930s and 40s California. In the title character Cain has created a decent strong-willed, enterprising woman -- with a fatal weakness. Mildred's relationships with men, and the sacrifices she makes in order to get ahead, are quite well done; so are some of the scenes of her adjusting to new situations -- whether taking up work as a waitress or dealing with a new (or old) man in her life. But she's not a truly compelling character -- while Veda potentially is. But Veda is never allowed to dominate the book, as everything is presented from Mildred's perspective. This makes what Veda does seem all the more shocking, but likely most readers would have preferred following her life rather than Mildred's all along.
       Mildred Pierce isn't boring, but there is some tedium. Cain doesn't risk or dare enough, and Mildred's blindness about her daughter is too simple to really move the reader.
       For all that, Mildred Pierce is worth reading to the end even if only to reach the last lines, as the novel does conclude with one of the great romantic exchanges of modern American literature, Bert and Mildred together again:
     "Come on, we got each other, haven't we ? Let's get stinko."
     "Yes -- let's get stinko."

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Mildred Pierce: Reviews: Mildred Pierce - the film: Mildred Pierce - the TV series: James M. Cain: Other books by James Cain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was, among other things, managing editor of The New Yorker and a screenwriter. He published his first novel when he was forty-two, and achieved great success with several hard-boiled classics.

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