When James Cain’s Mildred Pierce was adapted for film, it won Joan Crawford an Academy Award for her role as the titular long-suffering mother. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can only surmise that if Mildred Pierce works on screen it is only because it adds a murder mystery into the plot. The novel has no sense of flavor or interest.
Mildred was labeled a noir classic when I picked it up, but it completely lacks the trappings of the genre. I can only assume that it has been given the noir label because of the twists added to the movie and because its author, James Cain, is regarded as a master of the noir genre. Instead, Mildred is a character study about an independent woman whose only weakness is enabling her vile daughter. If only it were remotely interesting.
The big problem here is that there’s only enough material for a short story or, at most, a novella, but Cain insists on stretching the story out into a full novel. A judicious editor would undoubtedly prune large swaths of the plot and no reader would miss them. Cain gets nowhere in a hurry, and frequently goes on at infuriating length with inconsequential details about how Mildred spends her every day. Among other things, we get the minute details of her running a pie business from her home, then the inner workings of the restaurant where she waitresses, and then painfully detailed descriptions of her process opening her own restaurant. Spending pages with Mildred as she debates the cost of chicken, then decides how much to prep in advance of her first service is nothing short of interminable. If I wanted to read about the inner workings of a restaurant I’d revisit Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (which is an excellent book, by the way).
It would help if the characters were compelling, but Mildred and her awful daughter are not–and aside from a requisite maternal devotion it is exceedingly difficult to see why Mildred prizes awful Veda over her doomed, inconsequential younger child, and it’s too bothersome to care or even work up much emotion about what happens to any of them.