Saturday, January 12, 2019

Review: "Becoming Mrs. Lewis" by Patti Callahan

I'm a huge fan of C.S. Lewis's writing. Narnia, of course, but also his Space Trilogy (my favorite quote of all time comes from Perelandra), Till We Have Faces, and nonfiction like Mere Christianity. I took a C.S. Lewis class in college, and it was by far my favorite lit class.

But with all of my knowledge about Lewis's writing, I knew very little about his personal life. Sure, I knew he'd been a bachelor for most of his life before marrying a divorced American woman who died shortly thereafter, but I didn't really know anything of their story. So when I heard about Becoming Mrs. Lewis, a novel written from Joy Davidman's perspective, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it—but wait I did, as I was way down on the hold list at my library! My hold finally came in just before the new year.

In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice.

From New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan comes an exquisite novel of Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.

In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.

At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.

As I sit here trying to compose this review, I have a headache, and my eyes hurt ... a consequence of the 30 minutes I spent trying (and failing) to suppress my tears. Though I knew basically what was coming—after all, C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed following the death of his wife Joy—as I read of Joy's illness and eventual death, I was pretty much a wreck! There's something about knowing that a story is true (or at least based on true events) that makes it so much more impacting and emotional, at least for me.

Told in first person from Joy Davidman's perspective, Becoming Mrs. Lewis reads like a memoir—a completely fascinating one. There were moments when I was reading that I didn't like Joy very much; some of her decisions seemed unwise at best and immoral at worst. Still, I was completely swept into her story.

Following a short prologue set during Joy's childhood (which established her rocky relationship with her parents), the novel begins in 1946, when Joy had an unexpected experience with God that she didn't understand, but she suddenly knew He existed. She was married to Bill Gresham at the time, and the marriage was tumultuous, to say the least. Three years later, still grappling with faith and the meaning of Joy's experience with God, Joy and Bill wrote a letter to C.S. Lewis ... and there the story really begins.

As Joy and Jack (Lewis's nickname) corresponded and got to know each other, they became closer and closer—too close, as least on Joy's side of things (Bill very quickly lost interest in faith and in Jack's letters). And therein lay the struggle for me as I read; Joy was married to Bill and in love with Jack, and at one point she also was sleeping with another man because she couldn't have Jack.

And yet I found that, even when I didn't much like Joy, I still cared about her and wanted her story to turn out well. This is a fictionalized account, so I don't know how much of what's contained is truth and how much is speculation, but it's all engaging and thought provoking, and the writing is simply beautiful.

Though I didn't always love Joy, I came to appreciate her—her struggle to balance her aspirations with her family life, her desire to follow God, and her love for Lewis. And as I turned the last page, tears streaming down my face, I knew this would be a novel that would stick with me for a long time. 5 stars.

Content note: The novel contains a smattering of mild curse words.

Buy the book.

Patti Callahan (who also writes as Patti Callahan Henry) is a New York Times bestselling author. Patti was a finalist in the Townsend Prize for Fiction, has been an Indie Next Pick, twice an OKRA pick, and a multiple nominee for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Novel of the Year. Her work has also been included in short story collections, anthologies, magazines, and blogs. Patti attended Auburn University for her undergraduate work and Georgia State University for her graduate degree. Once a Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist, she now writes full time. The mother of three children, she lives in both Mountain Brook, Alabama, and Bluffton, South Carolina, with her husband. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I borrowed this book and chose to review it. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Also, some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means if you click the link and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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