2018, 392 pages
Patti Callahan is a favorite writer of mine, I love her voice and the interesting way she connects her characters in her fiction. I know she is a protege’ of one of the South’s favorite writing sons, Pat Conroy. I’ve seen her speak on a few occasions, and she always presents as very well-spoken and professional. So I have a passing familiarity with her, and with her fiction. I thought I had her “Pegged” as a decent writer, one I could count on to provide an entertaining book, slightly on the “Light” side, with strong female leads that are encountering change and challenge. I thought I “knew” her. That is until I read “Becoming Mrs. Lewis.” This book takes her straight out of the box I had mentally prepared for her as a reader. I was, quite simply, blown away by this book!
Creating a work of literary fiction based on real-life people has to be a tricky feat. The reader has to believe the premise that the author has gotten far enough into the head of her subjects that she can be trusted to turn real-life people and events into a story of her own creation. No matter what facts are available as the bones of this work, the flesh and blood has to be seamlessly woven in to give the book life and a beating heart. Ms. Callahan does all of this and more with her subjects. Joy Davidman, the “Mrs. Lewis” who fell in love with the author and poet C.S. Lewis before she had ever met him, is the main character, and the enigmatic intellectual writer she fell hard for also comes to life, with his huge personality, idiosyncratic thoughts and behaviors, and undeniable charm intact.
Before Joy ever thought about Mr. Lewis, she was a writer, a dreamer, and a skeptic in her own right. She had a complicated and intricate inner life, and a chaotic and unstable real one. She was the wife of another writer, an alcoholic philanderer who seemed to want his family, yet disappeared into the ether at times, leaving Joy confused and alone. The correspondence she began with C.S. Lewis brightened up her days to the point she almost lived for his letters. Their story unravels slowly, and Ms. Callahan lets it be what it was without rushing through the thoughts, emotions, and circumstantial underpinnings that are integral to the tale. As a reader, I was never bored with the intricate detail of what was happening in Joy’s brain, and in her life, because the tiny glimpses into what she was thinking gave me insight about why she chose to leave her husband and two young sons behind to travel to England and meet a person she only knew through letters.
The adventurous spirit of Joy, her willingness to devour life, her need to quench the desires of her heart, her unrelenting pursuit of her “Jack” (C.S. Lewis’ nickname) were all judged harshly in many publications. She was considered a religious writer, and nice religious women of the time didn’t behave like she did. However, Patti Callahan reveals the woman behind the judgments, one plagued all of her life with illness, one who tried with all she had to save her marriage, her children, and herself. As a reader, this exploration of a complex woman was refreshing to me. Joy was a fully formed woman, one of deep commitment and desire, one who dared to take a chance most would never approach. I loved her story, one of limitless love and the redemption it eventually gives to one bold enough to reach for it. This is Patti Callahan’s best book, and I hope she writes others with the power and beauty of this one.
I proudly give this book 4/4 stars