C.S. Lewis is maybe my favourite Christian writer. While he adamantly rejected being labelled as a theologian, his books express truths about Christianity that many Christians (including this one) have struggled to verbalize. His book Mere Christianity is a pivotal work for many on their faith walk. His fiction – from his classic Chronicles of Narnia series to his science fiction trilogy – are soaked in issues of faith and ethics. As I read Becoming Mrs. Lewis and as I write this review, I’m reading The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to my own children as a bedtime story. They were such a part of my childhood that I don’t really remember the first time I heard the stories.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis offers a fictional new light on Lewis’ personal life, from an entirely different perspective. That of Joy Davidman, the divorced Jewish-American woman who became his wife. Lewis, or Jack as his friends called him, and Joy became friends through letter-writing. Joy and her then-husband wrote to Jack, seeking spiritual answers and there followed a close personal friendship that grew between Joy and Jack. It was years before Joy ventured to England for the first time and they met in person, still only as friends as Joy and her husband Bill Gresham were still married. As their marriage became increasingly volatile, Joy leaned more strongly on her friendship with Jack. And when she finally came to the conclusion that the marriage could not be saved, she took her two young sons and moved to England.
The novel is entirely from Joy’s perspective, beginning with her conversion to Christianity and ending with her death. If you know Lewis’ biography at all then you know that Joy and Jack finally marry, only a few short years before Joy dies. Yet even knowing this conclusion, the story is still very compelling as we witness Joy fall in love, wondering if her good friend Jack does in fact feel the same way. It’s a classic story, made more complicated by other relationships and religious beliefs.
What sets this novel apart from the average love story is really the character of Joy. A successful writer in her own right, she struggled in the shadow of her novelist husband Bill. She loved her family and her boys but railed against the cultural assumptions that Bill’s work was more valuable than hers because he was a man. She resented his expectation that she support his career when he did little to support hers. In the end, it’s a sad irony that she’s best known as the wife of another man. The glimpses we get of Joy’s own writing, particularly her sonnets, are beautiful and provocative.
I also really appreciated the portrayals of religious experience. Joy has an undeniable moment of spiritual enlightenment early on in the novel, something that she continues to turn to as she struggles with her own beliefs. Her own identity is something she searches for through various facets her whole life. On the other side, we have Jack, older and more settled in his beliefs and habits. In some ways, it is a difference between British and American personalities, especially in the early 20th century. I felt that both religious journeys were fairly well represented and the decisions each character makes felt in line with their personal beliefs.
Where I felt the book failed was perhaps in the portrayal of Jack. The book really wants him to be the romantic hero but he just isn’t and when it attempts to portray him as such, it feels uncomfortable and unnatural. There is a continued emphasis on his lips, for example, which just doesn’t fit if you’ve ever seen a picture of C.S. Lewis. Obviously Joy loved him and love doesn’t require physical beauty but sometimes it felt like Callahan forgot who her characters were. This is, of course, a difficulty of writing fiction about real people.
I did enjoy the book and it made me feel like I need to reread some of Lewis’ work, particularly Till We Have Faces, his retelling of a myth that Joy had a large influence one. Overall, I think Becoming Mrs. Lewis would be most enjoyed by readers less familiar with Lewis’ life and work, though I did enjoy the novel.