Poet, atheist and communist, New Yorker Joy Davidman is an unconventional woman – and an unlikely partner for an English academic and theologian.
And when she starts a correspondence with Narnia author C. S. Lewis, she isn’t looking for love. Her own marriage crumbling, she seeks refuge in her work, and guidance from a writer she admires.
But in Joy’s letters Lewis discovers a kindred spirit, and an intellect to equal his own. Bonding over a shared love of literature and ideas, a deep connection is forged between the two.
Embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, Joy travels from America to England and back again. Facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, against all the odds, the couple struggle to secure a love that will endure forever.
I was keen to read Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan as I have read many of C S Lewis’ books and was enthralled watching Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Julian Fellowes in Shadowlands (not a dry eye in the cinema) some years ago. Shadowlands is about his meeting with Helen Joy Davidman and about the events that led to their marriage. I think the blurb (see above) summarises the events that led to Jack and Joy’s marriage very well and it was what made me want to read the book.
When I’d read part of the book I discovered that Patti Callahan was giving an online blog tour. It was very helpful, as I had been wondering whether the correspondence between Jack (as C S Lewis was known to his family and friends) and Joy that she quoted in the book was taken from their actual letters. She clarified that their letters had been lost – Jack had destroyed Joy’s letters to him because they were personal, whilst Joy had kept his letters to her in a trunk, but later it was vandalised and all the letters had gone. So, she had read the letters they had written to other people and used those as a basis for the letters in her book. In other words the letters in the book are imagined but inspired by those letters. She also said that the bones of her book are based on the facts – the dates and times are correct the rest is fiction.
However when I went back to the book I became disappointed. Written as though Joy herself is telling their story it is intense, passionate and very personal and I felt very uncomfortable reading it – as though I was eavesdropping on the characters. If I had been reading romantic fiction I wouldn’t have felt that way – but then I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.
Joy’s marriage was portrayed as a nightmare, her boys were in fear of their father and what he wanted from Joy was not the independent woman she was, but the little wife at home, submissive and obedient to him. He was abusive, an alcoholic and subject to rages. She found acceptance and understanding from Jack both in his letters and in person when she met him in England. What I found difficult to read is the personal thoughts and feelings ascribed to Joy and her desire for a physical relationship with Jack. I couldn’t warm to her, which is a shame as Patti Callahan’s admiration of her came over very strongly in her talk and she said that she had written the book so that people would care about her. It appeared to me from this book that she was almost stalking Jack. I was surprised that she felt able to spend so much time in England, despite missing her sons. She had left them at home with her husband and her cousin who was so obviously the kind of woman her husband desired.
I was in two minds several times about finishing the book, but I’m glad I persevered to the end as overall I did enjoy it even though I think it went into too much detail. It has inspired me to look back at the books I have by and about C S Lewis and to find out more about Joy Davidman.
My thanks to Harper Collins Inspire for a review copy via NetGalley.