Disclaimer: This review deals with some adult subject matter, so if your kiddos are reading my blog or if you’d rather not hear me complain about One Particular Quoted Passage, feel free to ignore this post. Just ignore it entirely. It’s okay, we’re good! 🙂
“The love story of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, was improbable–and seemingly impossible. Their Eros-story led to some of Lewis’s greatest works, yet Joy is most commonly known for how she died. Becoming Mrs. Lewis allows us to see how this brilliant and passionate woman lived–and why she stole Jack’s heart”–Google Books synopsis
I rarely write negative reviews on this blog. I prefer to promote things I love and enjoy, not tear down the things I dislike. I’m perfectly willing to point out my objections to certain things in my favorite stories, of course–but actually write negative views? On purpose? Not my style.
I’m compelled to write this particular review, though, because I expressed how much I wanted to read Becoming Mrs. Lewis after personally witnessing its big win at the Art of Writing Conference in Nashville last year. And then I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had started reading it, but had mixed feelings about it.
I don’t feel right about leaving y’all hanging, especially since I have a feeling many of my readers are, like me, big C.S. Lewis fans. And in the interests of being 100% honest, I’ll admit that some of my opinions are highly subjective while others come from a more critical “writer’s eye.”
There’s something irresistible about C.S. Lewis and his unlikely romance with Joy Davidman Gresham: “Charming, frumpy, theologically brilliant Oxford don and lifelong single marries outspoken, divorced, theologically brilliant American writer with two young sons.” There’s so much going on there, you can’t help but be intrigued! How did they meet? What sparked their friendship? What tipped them from philia, as Lewis himself would’ve described friendship, into eros?
Our family loves Lewis and his writings so much, we’ve affectionately called him “Uncle Jack” for as long as I can remember. As for Joy, she’s always been a figure of fascination for me. Her camaraderie with the man she ended up marrying, born of similar experiences and ambitions, shared faith, and vibrant humor, is something I’ve always hoped for in my own life should I ever meet the Dude of My Dreams. After all, if there isn’t friendship first, then what’s the point?
Lewis and Joy’s friendship is certainly well-portrayed in this novel–no doubt about that. But her side of the relationship (the one he is unaware of for most of the story) is problematic, both historically and in the novel. She fell deeply in love with him after they first met, yet she still had a husband back home in America. Yes, he was an abusive monster and serial adulterer, and their marriage was on the brink of divorce long before Joy ever met Lewis–but it does make the situation more sticky, especially in a novel that imaginatively explores Joy’s inner dialogue and emotions.
History-Joy was, apparently, determined to save her marriage regardless of her attraction to Lewis. The Novel-Joy expresses this desire as well…but not convincingly. Perhaps if she’d endured a fierce tug-of-war with her heart that ended in a total resolution to save her marriage at all costs, I would’ve bought it. As it was, Novel-Joy just seemed pretty halfhearted about the whole thing.
The book’s descriptions of England were ON POINT. Author Patti Callahan’s admiration for C.S. Lewis allowed for a rich and vivid portrayal of this beloved figure. But plentiful info-dumps, especially in the dialogue, unfortunately made Becoming Mrs. Lewis a clunky read–and the stilted dialogue often has a tad too much “twenty-first century feministic wokeness.” I realize History-Joy was an outspoken and independent woman, but after a while Novel-Joy’s repeated complaints about men and traditional gender roles got tiresome.
Her characterization, then, along with some of the author’s stylistic/artistic choices, would be my more critical complaints. My more subjective complaint may make you roll your eyes–but here it goes.
My favorite chapter in the book finds Joy and Lewis brainstorming his next novel–which eventually becomes Till We Have Faces. I LOVED this story (you can read my review of it on my Goodreads account!), so it was great fun to “watch” them come up with the idea and a working title…until I got smacked in the face with Too Much Information:
“Bareface,” [Jack] said. “That should be the title.” He stood and held the pages. “I haven’t been this excited about my work in a very long time. How can I thank you?”
“Get out of here and finish it,” [I said.] Or take me in your arms and set me down on that bed and make love to me.
The forbidden thought flew by unspoken. Jack rushed out of the room to return to his true love: the page.
–excerpt from Becoming Mrs. Lewis
Allow me to be brutally honest for a second. If this had been a fictional (married) heroine expressing a realistic, natural physical/sexual attraction to her husband, I wouldn’t have been squeamish about it. At all.
But first of all, Joy and Lewis weren’t even married yet in this passage–which already makes it squirm-worthy–and second of all, in a subjective and almost childlike way, I felt like I might as well be reading about my parents???? And I don’t need my parents to overshare about their love life?????? So the mental image of Joy Davidman having erotic fantasies about C.S. LEWIS is VERY VERY AWKWARD FOR ME?!?!?! AND THIS WASN’T THE ONLY PASSAGE LIKE THIS?!?!?!?!?!?!
I realize this is probably “just me” and that other readers won’t have a problem with it, but it made me want to crawl in a hole someplace and die of Secondhand Embarrassment, okay?
I refuse to say “DON’T READ THIS BOOK.” I’ve been burned one too many times by people who’ve told me “This Book/Movie is BAD, don’t watch it”–only to try it for myself and absolutely love it. (*cough-Tangled and The Last Jedi-cough-cough*)
So if you are interested in Becoming Mrs. Lewis, don’t let this review dissuade you. Read it yourself and come to your own conclusions. I didn’t particularly enjoy it–I’d probably prefer an actual biography of Joy Davidman–but I realize that not everyone will share my objections…or my squirmy reactions.
And thus concludes this uncomfortably honest and extremely awkward review.
16 thoughts on “Book Review: “Becoming Mrs. Lewis””
Hmmmmmmm. I’m undeniably curious now. I might want to read this book myself … we shall see.
This was a thoughtful review! Thank you for posting it.
You’re welcome! It was honestly kinda fun to write. I didn’t want to come off as a total prude…because I’m really not a prude. I believe in giving people IRL and on the page some privacy, but I’m NOT naive or scandalized by, y’know, the natural progression of romantic and physical attraction. And yet at the same time, I had to find a way to admit (humorously, I hope) that this book made me want to jump out of my skin sometimes XD
Thank you for sharing your review of this book, Maribeth, despite the discomfort I can tell it caused you. I think I might be giving it a pass myself (mostly for the same icky reason you mentioned made you most uncomfortable… That just… nahhhh… I don’t think I’d care at all if these were fully fictional characters, but there’s something uncomfortable about them being REAL PEOPLE who I look up to in a historical and academic sense.)
That said, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between these two since I first found out about it! Joy was such an unlikely person for C. S. Lewis to fall in love with, for so many reasons, not the least of which being her sharp tongue and extremely American sensibilities which were in such contrast to his very VERY British style. I would be highly interested in finding a good biography about them myself (so if anyone else who might see this comment knows of one, feel free to suggest it!)
Yeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaah, if we were talkin’ about fictional characters I would be like, “Oh, well, duh, of course.” Especially if those fictional characters were married. Don’t give me all the details, of course. I’m a strong believer in giving people their privacy, even people on the page; a nice “camera fades to black, drop the curtain, skip to the next morning” sort of thing is A-OK with me, yes ma’am. But this was just like…”Nope, no thank you, these are my historical/academic/literary parents and I’m gonna need to bleach my brain now.” 😅
But yes, I totally agree with you about how it’s such an “Opposites Attract” romance–which I love! And to be honest, that was the enjoyable part of the book: seeing how their friendship developed, how she adapted to British life, and how she scandalized everyone except for him. I did enjoy that part of the book.
I really enjoyed the book Shadowlands. Not sure if it would make you squeamish. I can’t remember the specific contents. I just remember really buying the love story.
Ohhh, I saw the older movie–the one with Claire Bloom playing Joy! It was a little slow, but it did give an excellent overview of their story. I think I was probably expecting this book and its portrayal of Joy to be more like Shadowlands.
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WHO SAID TANGLED WAS A BAD MOVIE?? *brandishes fictional frying pan* WHO???
*cough* Anyway…good review. And I’m in complete agreement when it comes to married and unmarried couples expressing, uh, desires.
Married couples – Fine, sure, whatever, just do it off-screen. Unmarried couples – No. I already get annoyed when unmarried couples gaze at each other’s lips/muscles for way too long, especially when they’ve JUST MET, and it’s become so cliche, it needs to stoooooop.
Arrrrrgh, finally getting to these comments! But yeah, I’ll brandish the frying pans with you, haha! Let’s just say that it was someone who probably didn’t appreciate facing the plain and simple fact that, umm, some parents can be abusive.
Glad you liked the review, even if was a little…awkward. Totally agree with what you said about the difference between married and unmarried couples in a story. I mean, I don’t mind if unmarried couples are attracted to each other! That’s NATURAL. But I don’t need to know every erotic thought that pops into their heads, please and no-thank-you.
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Oh, Okaaaay then.
What Joy said was probably about the most American thing a woman at that time would have said. I’m somewhat surprised though that it would be added and maybe it’s just our perception of Lewis. It does sound like a good book. Great review!
Haha, you’re probably right. She says a lot of Very American Things that shock the dickens out of those poor Englishmen.
Thanks for this review. I thought you handled it very well! 🙂 I was thinking of reading it, but now I think I’ll pass. I’m really not into books that give too many detail like that.
It’s not my cuppa tea, either. But I’m glad the review proved helpful! 🙂
Thanks for this review, Maribeth!! It was very good and thoughtful, and I’m also always thankful when there’s content warnings in reviews. 🙂 I have this book on my TBR, but I might wait a while to read it. I agree, married couples expressing *desires* is WAY different from unmarried couples…I’ve never been a huge fan of *way too much description* in films or books. 🙂
(Wait, wait, wait, someone said Tangled was a bad movie?!?!?! I’ve actually never heard that before; I’ve heard it about The Last Jedi (which is AMAZING, PERIOD EXCLAMATION MARK), but never about Tangled!)
You’re so welcome, Amelie! Like you, I am a big fan of Discretion and “Leaving Things to the Viewer/Reader’s Imagination.” This book did not do that for me, so I think I’ll stick with some “gentler” romances.
Haha, I did hear people say that about Tangled! And then I watched it for myself and absolutely fell in love with it. I actually did a whole blog post about it by comparing Gothel’s abuse and narcissism with Maleficent’s selfless love for Aurora. Here’s the link, if you’d like to read it!
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Thanks! I am planning on that as well. 🙂
(Your post was wonderful. I agree with it 100000%. :D)