Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679723219
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/1989
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 389,488
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

James Mallahan Cain (1892-1977) was a first-rate writer of American hard-boiled crime fiction. Born in Baltimore, the son of the president of Washington College, Cain began his career as a reporter, serving in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I and writing for The Cross of Lorraine, the newspaper of the 79th Division. He returned from the war to embark on a literay career that included a professorship at St. John’s College in Annapolis and a stint at The New Yorker as managing editor before he went to Hollywood as a script writer. Cain’s famous first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was published in 1934 when he was forty-two, and became an instant sensation. It was tried for obscenity in Boston and was said by Albert Camus to have inspired his own book, The Stranger. The infamous novel was staged in 1936, and filmed in 1946 and 1981. The story of a young hobo who has an affair with a married woman and plots with her to murder her husband and collect his insurance, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a benchmark of classic crime fiction and film noir. Two of Cain’s other novels, Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943), were also made into film noir classics. In 1974, James M. Cain was awarded the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Cain published eighteen books in all and was working on his autobiography at the time of his death.

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Chapter 1

In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees. It was a tedious job, for he had first to prune dead twigs, then wrap canvas buffers around weak branches, then wind rope slings over the buffers and tie them to the trunks, to hold the weight of the avocados that would ripen in the fall. Yet, although it was a hot afternoon, he took his time about it, and was conscientiously thorough, and whistled. He was a smallish man, in his middle thirties, but in spite of the stains on his trousers, he wore them with an air. His name was Herbert Pierce. When he had finished with the trees, he raked the twigs and dead branches into a pile, carried them back to the garage, and dropped them in a kindling box. Then he got out a mower and mowed the lawn. It was a lawn like thousands of others in southern California: a patch of grass in which grew avocado, lemon, and mimosa trees, with circles of spaded earth around them. The house, too, was like others of its kind: a Spanish bungalow, with white walls and red-tile roof. Now, Spanish houses are a little outmoded, but at the time they were considered high-toned, and this one was as good as the next, and perhaps a little better.

The mowing over, he got out a coil of hose, screwed it to a spigot, and proceeded to water. He was painstaking about this too, shooting water all over the trees, down on the spaded circles of earth, over the tiled walk, and finally on the grass. When the whole place was damp and smelled like rain, he turned off the water, pulled the hose through his hand to drain it, coiled it, and put it in the garage. Then he went around front and examined his trees, to make sure the water hadn't drawn the slings too tight. Then he went into the house.

The living room he stepped into corresponded to the lawn he left. It was indeed the standard living room sent out by department stores as suitable for a Spanish bungalow, and consisted of a crimson velvet coat of arms, displayed against the wall; crimson velvet drapes, hung on iron spears; a crimson rug, with figured border; a settee in front of the fireplace, flanked by two chairs, all of these having straight backs and beaded seats; a long oak table holding a lamp with stained-glass shade; two floor lamps of iron, to match the overhead spears, and having crimson silk shades; on table, in a corner, in the Grand Rapids style, and one radio, on this table, in the Bakelite style. On the tinted walls, in addition to the coat of arms, were three paintings: one of a butte at sunset, with cow skeletons in the foreground; one of a cowboy, herding cattle through snow, and one of a covered-wagon train, plodding through an alkali flat. On the long table was one book, called Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge, stamped in gilt and placed on an interesting diagonal. One might object that this living room achieved the remarkable feat of being cold and at the same time stuffy, and that it would be quite oppressive to live in. But the man was vaguely proud of it, especially the pictures, which he had convinced himself were "pretty good." As for living in it, it had never once occurred to him.

Today, he gave it neither a glance nor a thought. He hurried through, whistling, and went back to a bedroom, which was filled with a seven-piece suite in bright green, and showed feminine touches. He dropped off his work clothes, hung them in a closet, and stepped naked into the bathroom, where he turned on water for a bath. Here again was reflected the civilization in which he lived, but with a sharp difference. For whereas it was, and still is, a civilization somewhat naïve as to lawns, living rooms, pictures, and other things of an aesthetic nature, it is genius itself, and has forgotten more than all other civilizations ever knew, in the realm of practicality. The bathroom that he now whistled in was a utile jewel: it was in green tile and white tile; it was as clean as an operating room; everything was in its proper place and everything worked. Twenty seconds after the man tweaked the spigots, he stepped into a bath of exactly the temperature he wanted, washed himself clean, tweaked the drain, stepped out, dried himself on a clean towel, and stepped into the bedroom again, without once missing a bar of the tune he was whistling, or thinking there was anything remarkable about it.

After combing his hair, he dressed. Slacks hadn't made their appearance then, but gray flannels had: he put on a fresh pair, with polo shirt and blue lounge coat. Then he strolled back to the kitchen, a counterpart of the bathroom, where his wife was icing a cake. She was a small woman, considerably younger than himself; but as there was a smear of chocolate on her face, and she wore a loose green smock, it was hard to tell what she looked like, except for a pair of rather voluptuous legs that showed between smock and shoes. She was studying a design, in a book of such designs, that showed a bird holding a scroll in its beak, and now attempted reproduction of it, with a pencil, on a piece of tablet paper. He watched for a few moments, glanced at the cake, said it looked swell. This was perhaps an understatement, for it was a gigantic affair, eighteen inches across the middle and four layers high, covered with a sheen like satin. But after his comment he yawned and said: "Well—don't see there's much else I can do around here. Guess I'll take a walk down the street."

"You going to be home for supper?"

"I'll try to make it, but if I'm not home by six don't wait for me. I may be tied up."

"I want to know."

"I told you, if I'm not home by six—"

"That doesn't do me any good at all. I'm making this cake for Mrs. Whitley, and she's going to pay me three dollars for it. Now if you're going to be home I'll spend part of that money on lamb chops for supper. If you're not, I'll buy something the children will like better."

"Then count me out."

"That's all I want to know."

There was a grim note in the scene that was obviously out of key with his humor. He stood around uncertainly, then made a bid for appreciation. "I fixed up those trees. Tied them up good, so the limbs won't bend down when the avocados get big, the way they did last year. Cut the grass. Looks pretty nice out there."

"You going to water the grass?"

"I did water it."

He said this with quiet complacency, for he had set a little trap for her, and she had fallen into it. But the silence that followed had a slightly ominous feel to it, as though he himself might have fallen into a trap that he wasn't aware of. Uneasily he added: "Gave it a good wetting down."

"Pretty early for watering the grass, isn't it?"

"Oh, one time's as good as another."

"Most people, when they water the grass, wait till later in the day, when the sun's not so hot, and it'll do some good, and not be a waste of good water that somebody else has to pay for."

"Who for instance?"

"I don't see anybody working around here but me."

"You see any work I can do that I don't do?"

"So you get done early."

"Come on, Mildred, what are you getting at?"

"She's waiting for you, so go on."

"Who's waiting for me?"

"I think you know."

"If you're talking about Maggie Biederhof, I haven't seen her for a week, and she never did mean a thing to me except somebody to play rummy with when I had nothing else to do."

"That's practically all the time, if you ask me."

"I wasn't asking you."

"What do you do with her? Play rummy with her a while, and then unbutton that red dress she's always wearing without any brassieres under it, and flop her on the bed? And then have yourself a nice sleep, and then get up and see if there's some cold chicken in her icebox, and then play rummy some more, and then flop her on the bed again? Gee, that must be swell. I can't imagine anything nicer than that."

His tightening face muscles showed his temper was rising, and he opened his mouth to say something. Then he thought better of it. Then presently he said: "Oh, all right," in what was intended to be a lofty, resigned way, and started out of the kitchen.

"Wouldn't you like to bring her something?"

"Bring her—? What do you mean?"

"Well there was some batter left over, and I made up some little cakes I was saving for the children. But fat as she is, she must like sweets, and—here, I'll wrap them up for her."

"How'd you like to go to hell?"

She laid aside the bird sketch and faced him. She started to talk. She had little to say about love, fidelity, or morals. She talked about money, and his failure to find work; and when she mentioned the lady of his choice, it was not as a siren who had stolen his love, but as the cause of the shiftlessness that had lately come over him. He broke in frequently, making excuses for himself, and repeating that there was no work, and insisting bitterly that if Mrs. Biederhof had come into his life, a guy was entitled to some peace, instead of constant nagging over thing that lay beyond his control. They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit. Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage and added little to the originality to them and nothing of beauty. Presently they stopped, and he started out of the kitchen again, but she stopped him. "Where are you going?"
"Would I be telling you?"
"Are you going to Maggie Biederhof's?"
"Suppose I am?"
"Then you might as well pack right now, and leave for good, because if you go out of that door I'm not going to let you come back. If I have to take this cleaver to you, you're not coming back in this house."
She lifted the cleaver out of a drawer, held it up, put it back, while he watched contemptuously. "Keep on, Mildred, keep right on. If you don't watch out, I may call you one of these days. I wouldn't ask much to take a powder on you, right now."

"You're not calling me. I'm calling you. You go to her this afternoon, and that's the last you've seen of this house."

"I go where I goddam please to go."

"Then pack up, Bert."

His face went white, and their eyes met for a long stare. "O.K., then. I will."

"You better do it now. The sooner the better."

"O.K. . . . O.K."

He stalked out of the kitchen. She filled a paper cornucopia with icing, snipped the end off with a pair of scissors, and started to ice the bird on the cake.

By then he was in the bedroom, pitching traveling bags from the closet to the middle of the floor. He was pretty noisy about it, perhaps hoping she would hear him and come in there, begging him to change his mind. If so, he was disappointed, and there was nothing for him to do but pack. His first care was for an outfit of evening regalia, consisting of shirts, collars, studs, ties, and shoes, as well as the black suit he called his "tuxedo." All these he wrapped tenderly in tissue paper, and placed in the bottom of the biggest bag. He had, in truth, seen better days. In his teens he had been a stunt rider for the movies, and was still vain of his horsemanship. Then an uncle had died and left him a ranch on the outskirts of Glendale. Glendale is now an endless suburb, bearing the same relation to Los Angeles as Queens bears to New York. But at that time it was a village, and a pretty scrubby village at that, with a freight yards at one end, open country at the other, and a car track down the middle.

So he bought a ten-gallon hat, took possession of the ranch, and tried to operate it, but without much success. His oranges didn't grade, and when he tried grapes, the vines had just started when Prohibition came along and he dug them out, in favor of walnuts. But he had just selected his trees when the grape market zoomed on the bootleg demand, and this depressed him so much that for a time his land lay idle, while he tried to get his bearings in a dizzily-spinning world. But one day he was visited by three men who made him a proposition. He didn't know it, but southern California, and particularly Glendale, was on the verge of the real-estate boom of the 1920's, such a boom as has rarely been seen on this earth.

So, almost overnight, with his three hundred acres that were located in the exact spot where people wanted to build, he became a subdivider, a community builder, a man of vision, a big shot. He and the three gentleman formed a company, called Pierce Homes, Inc., with himself as president. He named a street after himself, and on Pierce Drive, after he married Mildred, built this very home that he now occupied, or would occupy for the next twenty minutes. Although at that time he was making a great deal of money, he declined to build a pretentious place. He told the architect: "Pierce Homes are for folks, and what's good enough for folks is good enough for me." Yet it was a little better, in some ways, than what is usually good enough for folks. It had three bathrooms, one for each bedroom, and certain features of the construction were almost luxurious. It was a mockery now, and the place had been mortgaged and remortgaged, and the money from the mortgages long since spent. But once it had been something, and he liked to thump the walls, and comment on how solidly they were built.

Instead of putting his money in a bank, he had invested it in A. T. & T., and for some years had enjoyed daily vindication of his judgment, for the stock soared majestically, until he had a $350,000 "equity" in it, meaning there was that much difference between the price of the stock and the margin on which he carried it. But then came Black Thursday of 1929, and his plunge to ruin was so rapid he could hardly see Pierce Homes disappear on his way down. In September he had been rich, and Mildred picked out the mink coat she would buy when the weather grew cooler. In November, with the weather not a bit cooler, he had to sell the spare car to pay current bills. All this he took cheerfully, for many of his friends were in the same plight, and he could joke about it, and even boast about it. What he couldn't face was the stultification of his sagacity. He had become so used to crediting himself with vast acumen that he could not bring himself to admit that his success was all luck, due to the location of his land rather than to his own personal qualities. So he still thought in terms of the vast deeds he would do when things got a little better. As for seeking a job, he couldn't bring himself to do it, and in spite of all he told Mildred, he hadn't made the slightest effort in this direction. So, by steady deterioration, he had reached his present status with Mrs. Biederhof. She was a lady of uncertain years, with a small income from hovels she rented to Mexicans. Thus she was in relative affluence when others were in want, and had time on her hands. She listened to the tales of his grandeur, past and future, fed him, played cards with him, and smiled coyly when he unbuttoned her dress. He lived in a world of dreams, lolling by the river, watching the clouds go by.

He kept looking at the door, as though he expected Mildred to appear, but it remained closed. When little Ray came home from school, and scampered back for her cake, he stepped over and locked it. In a moment she was out there, rattling the knob, but he kept still. He heard Mildred call something to her, and she went out front, where other children were waiting for her The child's name was really Moire, and she had been named by the principles of astrology, supplemented by numerology, as had the other child, Veda. But the practitioner had neglected to include pronunciation on her neatly typewritten slip, and Bert and Mildred didn't know that it was one of the Gaelic variants of Mary, and pronounced Moyra. They took it for a French name of the more exclusive kind, and pronounced it Mwaray, and quickly shortened it to Ray.

His last bag strapped up, he unlocked the door and walked dramatically to the kitchen. Mildred was still at work on the cake, which by now was a thing of overwhelming beauty, with the bird sitting on a leafy green twig, holding the scroll, "Happy Birthday to Bob," perkily in its beak, while a circle of rosebuds, spaced neatly around the rim, set up a sort of silent twittering. She didn't look up. He moistened his lips, asked: "Is Veda home?"

"Not yet she isn't."

"I laid low when Ray came to the door just now. I didn't see any reason for her to know about it. I don't see any reason for either of them to know about it. I don't want you to tell them I said good-bye or anything. You can just say—"

"I'll take care of it."

"O.K., then. I'll leave it to you."

He hesitated. Then: "Well, good-bye, Mildred."

With jerky steps, she walked over to the wall, stood leaning on it, her face hidden, then beat on it once or twice, helplessly, with her fists. "Go on, Bert. There's nothing to say. Just—go on."

When she turned around he was gone, and then the tears came, and she stood away from the cake, to keep them from falling on it. But when she heard the car back out of the garage, she gave a low frightened exclamation, and ran to the window. They used it so seldom now, except on Sundays if they had a little money to buy gas, that she had completely forgotten about it. And so, as she saw this man slip out of her life, the only clear thought in her head was that now she had no way to deliver the cake.

What People are Saying About This

Tom Wolfe

Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, and not even Raymond Chandler.

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Mildred Pierce 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 91 reviews.
OHBeth More than 1 year ago
Cain was a wonderful writer who had at least two novels made into movies. They are now vintage books (and a just-ended TV series), but they have a strong appeal for modern readers in spite of being anchored in their place and time (California during the Great Depression). If you saw the first movie with Joan Crawford, you might be surprised at how different the book is and how much more satisfying it is in both plot and character. Cain is really good at creating creepy female sociopaths, and this book is no exception. Veda, Mildred's daughter, is a ruthless and ambitious social climber who also happens to have a heavenly voice. She's also got her eye on Monty, Mildred' playboy husband. But Mildred is blind to Veda's real character and it takes years for her to realize what the girl is all about. When she does, the irony is delicious.
BusyProfessional More than 1 year ago
I didn't know this was a whole book, always thought it was a short story. Much better than The Postman Always Rings Twice. Riveting story of the woman who is Mildred Pierce. Much different than the movie, yet I could see where they pulled pieces of the movie from this book. Great literature / highly recommended, espec. if you've recently seen the film for comparison.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great read and well worth your time but my problem lies with Milldred herself. She has ambition, yet is blind to her daughter, and Mildred isn't a likeable person. She is a bit loose with men, as is Veda, so it could be a case of like mother like daughter. Fun book but enjoyed the classic movie over the HBO adaption but they did follow the book exactly. Over all. There are no likeable characters which could be Cain's statement.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I guess this book was a hard-boiled, gritty drama in its day, but it reads like a beautifully written, period piece today. The HBO remake is very true to the novel. However, following Mildred's inner thoughts reveals motive that can't be understood only watching the miniseries. The book filled out my knowledge of this fascinating literary character. I highly recommend it. I'll be reading the other two novels by James Cain to finish off my summer. If you're interested in the history of Hollywood, read about the Hays Office, and why the original film with Joan Crawford had an almost unrecognizable adaptation of this novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the mini-series, I loved the movie staring Joan Crawford, and I LOVED (with all caps) the book. It is very well written, and I couldn't put it down.
Aimee_Leon More than 1 year ago
I finished listening to Mildred Pierce over a month ago and I enjoyed it. From the character Mildred¿s point of view, feelings & emotions spurring throughout her marriage on the rocks and family struggles. James M. Cain has done excellent writing in this novel. This was the first story of his that I¿ve read from Cain. The story defiantly enraging and thrilling from the beginning toward the near end but the ending could have been better. That¿s just in my opinion. As compare to the movie¿s adaptation there was obviously changes in the film that wasn¿t mentioned. Such as additional characters, liaisons and the ending were totally different. I¿d recommend anyone to read or listen to the book and to watch the movie.
patricia deleon More than 1 year ago
Great book and movie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written and developed characters, from put upon Mildred to stolid Burt to vile, selfish Veda. And,of course, poor little sweet Ray. The original movie changed her name to Kay, no doubt because a girl being called by what is usually a boy's name wouldn't be believed by 1940s audiences. The movie is very good and has an excellent performance by Joan Crawford (whatever she may have been like offscreen, she was a good actress onscreen), but of course the miniseries had the luxury of being truer to the book. Still, the book is the best of all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author cared, and it shows!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What can I say about this story? You just have to read it for yourself. This is a book that raises the bar for all authors; you have never read anything like "Mildred Pierce."
BarbaraHouston on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I love melodrama ,.. and this is a good one. The Joan Crawford movie was okay but the novel is better. Recommended for those who want a good weep,
astroantiquity on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Taut and incredibly written. It's not really that hard hitting nor that action-packed, but the emotional impact that it has will last for a long time.
ken1952 on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is one of Cain's big three along with The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I really enjoyed it: who wouldn't especially those scratch-your-eyes-out scenes between Mildred and her cold calculating daughter Veda. And Mildred's rise from waitress to restaurateur during Prohibition was fascinating. Obviously Mildred Pierce is screen gold...Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her portrayal in the 1945 film version and Kate Winslet won an Emmy for the 2011 HBO mini-series. Give the book a chance. (I dare you not to begin craving one of Mildred's homemade pies or a piece of her delicious fried chicken. But don't let Veda too close to the banquet table, or she'll eat you out of house and home and men.)
mthelibrarian on LibraryThing 10 months ago
It's coming out as an HBO miniseries this month, so I thought I would try it. It turned out to be set in Glendale, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Laguna, California, so the settings alone were fun for me. Written in 1941 and set starting in the depression, it's the stoy of a woman who kicks her husband out of the house and then attempts to make a go of it herself. She works her way up, first as a waitress and then as a restaurant owner. The story also details her relationship with her daughters and other men in her life. A lot is packed into 260 pages; I definitely would read more by this author.
TulaneGirl More than 1 year ago
Always nice to recognize the location. Glendale is right next door and reading about the way it was in the 1930's/1940's was just so comforting. Although nowhere near the brilliance of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce was nonetheless a worthwhile read. The novel starts with Mildred refusing to stand by her shiftless, cheating husband any longer. She kicks him out and takes to the challenge of getting a job and rearing her two daughters. Mildred has a dash of pride which is quickly set aside when she realizes that she lacks the skills for any office jobs and, instead, must take on a waitress job. Veda, Mildred's daughter is horrified to find out her mother is a waitress. Veda is spoiled, pretentious, and narcissistic. She's truly awful, and yet, the author spends the whole novel having Mildred cater to Veda's whims and manipulations. Worse yet, he doesn't seem to condemn Veda's behavior and in fact, sometimes implies that without Veda's snobbery, Mildred would never get anywhere in life. The plot, as in all noir, thickens and it (almost) ends with a showdown between Mildred and Veda. If you've watched the movie, the middle to end will surprise you since the movie deviated from the book. In the end, Mildred ends up in an unexpected (to me anyway) situation which made very little sense. I gave this book 3 stars because I hated Veda and cared nothing for her. She didn't bring Mildred anything but down. And the plot was too uneven and unbelievable in places to be given any more stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lover it.
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bjh123 More than 1 year ago
Maybe because I had just watched the mini-series, I did not enjoy this book very much. Or, maybe it was the year it was written - very different from current writings. If you want to watch the mini-series, I'd recommend reading the book first.
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