Cain is best known for writing hard-boiled detective novels so, on the surface of things, this novel seems to be a sharp departure. Opening during the Great Depression, Mildred Pierce is supporting her family by baking pies. Fed up with her husband’s inability to help, she kicks them out of their home and has to find a way to make a means for herself and their two daughters. She does all right for herself, in spite of her circumstances, but it is her relationship with her elder daughter, Veda, that is the emotional force in this novel.
In a way, Veda fulfills the role of femme fatale, becoming a source of obsession for her mother, Mildred. None of the screen versions does justice to the possessive nurturing that perverts the mother/daughter relationship. Some of the nuance of this is not lost in Winslet’s performance but, while reading the novel, I found myself cringing at Mildred’s desperation, her relentless drive to appease her manipulative and dishonest daughter. So, for all that this is no detective novel, it still fulfills some of the “underbelly of society” laid bare. Mildred of the novel is perhaps less sympathetic than Winslet’s interpretation while also being far less pathetic than Crawford’s.
If you are only familiar with Mildred Pierce from the classic film, this novel will surprise you because it is both familiar and so very different. The HBO mini-series is true to the novel, blunting some of the harder edges, making at least Mildred a somewhat more likeable person. The novel is a revelation. I enjoyed reading it very much. Far more than I did Dashiell Hammett’s novels when I read them as a teen.