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Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

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Oxford Don, writer, and theologian C.S. Lewis is an unlikely hero of the American Evangelical church. I’ve often wondered, as I’ve sat in church and heard his words quoted, what the congregation would make of the REAL man, Jack Lewis. As well as of his very Catholic friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, another unlikely hero. None led lives or worshipped or even believed in God in the ways our churches today articulate the word and truth of God. Nor did they speak to God in the same way we are lead to do. Lewis was an Anglican, Tolkien a Roman Catholics. They’d likely be appalled by our services, our church as lifestyle center, our music–our music would definitely leave them shuddering! I can see Jack singing “I Vow To Thee My Country” but NOT Mercy Me’s Greater!

Today I’m looking at an overall enjoyable historical fiction of what Lewis’ life may have been like from the time he met the woman who would be his only wife–divorced, converted Jew, ex-Communist, Joy Davidman. The love of his life. The love of her life, I should say, for it is told from Joy’s perspective. Her life as she slowly became Mrs. C.S. Lewis.

The Story

Joy and Jack’s love has been told before in books, stage/radio/tv plays and, for me most memorably, in the fabulous (though very fictionalized) film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger as Jack and Joy. That is one of the dearest romantic films ever, but this book goes deeper and wider than a 2-hour feature film could go.

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We meet Joy in her horrible, dying marriage to fellow writer Bill Gresham. Joy has had a conversion moment and is trying to live her faith in a stolid Presbyterian congregation in the late 1940s in suburban New York. Eventually, they even move to the countryside near Poughkeepsie–taking her farther from friends, agents and her writing life in New York. Like many, many post-war mothers she found the new suburban life stifling to the point of loss of self. Her new faith helps sustain and strengthen her. She has also been physically ill. She and her husband, Bill are still working at their marriage in spite of his depression, alcoholism, violent temper and womanizing,  They finally decide that, with the arrival of a cousin to help with the boys, Joy should go away to England to get well.  Joy has written in both their names, to C.S. Lewis with questions of faith and belief. During her time in England she will meet him and the rest, in a way, is history.

My Thoughts on the Writing

Even though Lewis and Davidman were both celebrated writers, both incredibly intellectual and fabulously well-educated, I found the conversations too perfect in the book.  Do people, even ones such as these two, really speak like that at home, with a drink in hand and the day done? I wonder.  I found it a little odd that she would include “bloody” and “bugger” in their speech but that an American only used British swear words! Did they ever just say “mutton again?” or “We’re out of whiskey Joy–tell the housekeeper.” Every moment was amazing “prose-speak–” the occasional mention of bugg– notwithstanding.

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Then there were the various really odd phrases. Why was Jack always in “lounging clothes” and never pajamas or nightclothes? He really stuffed tobacco “leaves” into his pipe?  Strange that a Southern writer wouldn’t know how big a tobacco leaf is! Pipe tobacco is shredded or almost grated. Joy and her children “land port” in England. On and on with weird things like this that her editor should have nixed. Then there were the British terms–always a “cuppa” and then “smashing” and….oh please, don’t try so hard!

Joy and Jack as Characters

I found the characters were not “real” to me in the way, say Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Chaney were in Nancy Horn’s great Loving Frank. Joy’s physical desire for Jack is well written. Much of the rest of her character seemed selfish. I was completely on her side in wanting to get well and then to get her boys to a safe new life –even a life in England. But I kept thinking why didn’t she and Bill just get JOBS? They could find the money for this haven of a farm, scrape up money for a trip to England (admittedly with Joy staying at a friend’s) but money was always a big problem. I agreed with her though that Bill could go off on a “business trip” (her trip was partly to research a new book) and no one thought anything of it. But for a mother of two small children to up and go on a research trip and rest cure was unthinkable. Sadly, it can still be treated that way today.

I think today we would almost term Joy a “stalker.” She fell in love with Jack’s intellect–a powerful aphrodisiac without doubt, but then decided to have him even before she was free from her marriage to Bill, yet, in the story at least, while yearning for the consummation of this love she has a hook-up with another writer? I’d not even have noticed this little blip given the way s– is omnipresent in modern fiction, but the book is from Thomas Nelson–a Christian publisher! We are supposed to see Joy, warts and all, but Jack–not so much.

She then brings her sons to England and, after “abandoning” them (as it must have seemed to elementary school-aged children) to go get well (and, lets face it, to stalk Jack) she then puts them in yet another new culture–a British boys boarding school like the Princes William and Harry went to at age eight. Wow.  She writes feverishly, but sells almost nothing. Finally, her work on the 10 Commandments sells–but she is smart enough to realize it is Jack’s name on the cover that sells it.

Meanwhile, Jack is there with his theories of love and that theirs is the love of friendship. He knocks back whiskey, pontificates eloquently, smokes like a factory, pays for the boys boarding school, yet won’t even give Joy a good-night peck on the cheek. Odd. Well, odd to an American of today. It’s as though she felt not only the natural lust for a man she was in love with but also guilt for all that he’d done for her and so she should “pay her way” in his bed. I hope not, but it felt like it at times. Would Jack’s completely platonic approach also have been odd to an Englishwoman of that day? I imagine so. People kiss socially in that world–not in passion, more in air kisses, but contact was not forbidden. That Jack is “taken” with Joy is without doubt. But I think he might have used Prince Charles’ famous phrase “Whatever ‘in love’ means,” if asked if he was in love with Joy, before lighting a new cigarette and swishing his whiskey around in his glass and squirming a bit in his chair.

What WAS holding him back? Could a man truly be that faithful to God and Church? I hope so. Was he that chivalrous and romantic and idealistic that any thought of the physical was besmirching their love? Or, was he just not taken with her in that way? Was her continuous need to all but hurl herself into his arms just too much? Then too, it is easy to forget that anti-Semitism was still huge at that time (and can still be today). Or was his very settled life in a totally male, easily understood world at home and at Oxford too hard to give up? Was he attracted more to men? (I don’t think so.) Was his past too shameful to him to let himself overcome it and move on? (Very possibly). Or, was he afraid if he did kiss her or did take her in his arms that he’d not make himself stop? I hope it’s the last, but then I’m a romantic. But I think the death of his mother, his disastrous life with his late friend’s mother and the male-mate culture he was so immersed in, kept him from opening up.

One emotion that seemed very real was his discomfort on taking Joy to the pub with some of his Inkling friends met. Tolkien, very priggishly, says that his wife does not frequent pubs–she is at home [implied: where she belongs] with the children. You can just hear the others saying “hear, hear” like in Parliament. Jack probably lit another cigarette and sipped his pint.

Throughout the book we are treated to Joy, a woman from a time and culture in which effusive shows of mothering emotion were far, far from the norm, gushing about her beloved boys and kissing them over and over and seemingly constantly tenderly cupping their chins. Right. That rang so false and off-key. I’m sure she DID do some of those things but they were so cloying and precious and so “prose-y perfect” that I couldn’t see them as real. When Jack says Davey swanned off and he finally found him around midnight skating on the pond–that seemed real. The “Poo-gles,” [I had the audio so I’m not sure how to spell it] as Joy and, earlier, Bill, had called the children (and each other) was too saccharine for this book. It was supposed to be a touch of real life–a sweet thing, but it was just atonal mush to me. The boys themselves were reduced to stick figures–better to just have mentioned them and not tried to write them as characters.

What Was Missing

We get hints of the disapproval of Jack’s friends for the relationship in general and for Joy in particular. Tolkein alone gets to voice any disapproval and that is more for her being in his sacred man-cave-pub. It is easy to see how discontent would have been present. Joy was Jewish, an American, divorced, unwilling or unable to support her children fully and made herself very useful to Jack. Was she the Yoko Ono of the Inklings? It would have been something to have a standoff with one of them! Joy doing battle with a sanctimonious wife or priggish Oxford friend of Jack’s would have made for lively reading.

What I Loved

Yes, this has been a fairly critical review–but there was much to love in this book too. I loved the vivid way Callahan shows us the collaboration between Joy and Jack–the editing of each other’s work, the encouragement, the brainstorming. That was superb. Falling in love as mature adults, through shared interests, shared or complimentary intellectual passions, shared humor, being able to discuss and debate and have it fuel passion is perhaps the finest way to fall in love and become husband and wife, to become lovers. Joy helped sustain Jack but Jack sustained Joy, I feel, far more than her faith. He was her rock. But, Joy IS under-credited for her very real role in Lewis’ later work. That is a tragedy, but one wives of her era and before took for granted.

Now I must read more about the Inklings. And re-watch Shadowlands, which shows a Lewis who never learned to drive, driving! Hollywood.

What I Despised

THE READER! UGH! I listened to the audio book and while she was not the worst reader I’ve endured, she wasn’t good. Don’t try to do British accents. Just don’t. She was somewhere between Monty Python and Mary Poppins. It was horrendous. She was cloying to the n-th degree when Joy was being all modern-ever-gushing-attachment-Mommy. Yuck. But, none of that is the author’s fault. I doubt she had much of a say in who did the audio. A true New Yorker who smoked a lot would have been better!

 My Rating

3.5 Stars

 

For more on Jack and Joy see this fascinating blog post, My Mistress.

2 thoughts on “Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

  1. Ha — well, I’m glad I’m reading this instead of listening! About 3/4 done now; I enjoyed your thoughts a lot. Ha ha on Jack and Charles’ comment about whatever love is … that does make sense. And yes, several times I’ve wondered how Joy could up and leave her boys for months with her loser husband and cousin?!

    Liked by 1 person

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