By James M. Cain
Read Nov 2021
The book opens with Bert Pierce doing a number of home maintenance chores around his suburban home in a development it turns out he helped create. When he finishes, he tells his wife, Mildred, he will be going out for a while. When she presses him for a time to expect him, so that she can appropriately plan dinner—-and how much to spend buying the food she will cook—their discussion degrades into an argument. He won’t deny that he will be seeing another woman while out and Mildred asks that he permanently leave which he agrees to do.
Thus begins Mildred’s life as a single mother trying to support two young daughters in early 1930’s while the country is in a deep depression. Part of her anger with Bert had to do with her cooking and baking being the sole source of income for the family for a while. Bert’s partnership to develop a housing community in Glendale, CA had fallen on hard times as a result of the depression. Bert and Mildred occupy one of the houses in the development and had enjoyed a lifestyle that included the possibility of Mildred getting a mink coat just before the bottom fell out for them. The book follows Mildred’s path to finding her way as a beautiful young divorcee with no skills beyond cooking, baking, and cleaning.
Mildred seeks employment but is loathe to take any position that requires she wear a uniform as that would telegraph her fall down the socioeconomic ladder. She eventually does take a job as a waitress and hides her uniform from her daughter, Veda. She becomes involved with one of Bert’s partners, Wally Burgan, who works out a scheme for Mildred to open her own diner in the development. Before she quits her day-job to open her own restaurant, she meets a wealthy man, Monty, and becomes involved with him. Mildred’s cooking, her famous pies, and her industriousness pay off and she seems well on her way to success and happiness.
Of course, the path to success and happiness is often filled with ruts and Mildred’s story is no different. An Illness takes her younger daughter from her. Her older daughter, Veda, while enjoying the fruits of Mildred’s success, remains aloof and overtly looks down on anyone who has to work for a living, including her mother, and is willing to take advantage of people for her own benefit. The conflict between mother and daughter is simultaneously an internal conflict for Mildred— Mildred wants the best for her daughter, wants to give her daughter anything and everything she wants and needs, but also wants her daughter to respect her and her accomplishments, and for her daughter to be a good person.
The book was made into a movie in 1945. The Motion Picture Production code in force at the time disallowed some of the elements of Cain’s story, in particular the sexual relationships that Cain includes. But the relationships he describes are like real ones at that time and don’t include any graphic details. Cain paints a real, unvarnished picture of the time. The adult characters face real and complex issues and Cain doesn’t shy away from these either. The themes Cain considers are quite universal and timeless. These attributes make this book remains highly worth reading some eighty years after its publication.