Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs. Lewis – Patti Callahan (Thomas Nelson, 2018)

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.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan”

  1. I’m always wary of fiction based so closely on real people. On the whole, I prefer things to be more fully fictionalised or else be an actual biography. Otherwise I spend too much time wondering which bits are “true” and which are invented to tie in with the story the author wants to tell…

    1. Yes, I’m always hesitant on that front too. I get why this book wasn’t a biography – it’s way too personal for that – but it feels intrusive to write so intimately of real people that you never knew.

  2. Great review! I always find the concept of fiction based on real people interesting, though I must admit I can’t think of many cases where I really felt it was done well. I think I’ve only ever read The Chronicles of Narnia from C.S. Lewis (I hope your daughters are enjoying the books! 🙂 ) and know next to nothing about him as a person, so I suppose it makes sense that I had no idea fiction was being written about him! Even so I think I’d prefer something close to the truth moreso than something that’s just enjoyable, as I’d probably approach it out of an interest to learn about the person. I’m glad this one wasn’t a complete dud for you in the end, though sorry it didn’t quite live up to expectations!

    1. Thanks! It was an interesting book. Someone loaned it to me, otherwise I don’t know if I would have sought out a copy but I did enjoy it overall. There have been a couple of books and even a movie about Joy and C.S. Lewis, though this book is unique in that it’s solely from her perspective. I’ve read Lewis’ own memoir and a lot of his writing and he always has a kindly old uncle feel to him so I think that made the romance side of this weird to me!

  3. I haven’t read a lot of Lewis, but I know that we have a number of his nonfiction books at the library where I work, and I shelve them frequently! I just read a review by Lou who noted that people often give Lewis grief for including religious themes in his books, but no one says anything about how religious Anne Shirley becomes after she marries Gilbert and has children, or other books in which the author’s personal feelings make way into characters, whether it’s religion or something else.

    1. That’s an interesting observation. I know some people don’t like Lewis for that reason. Personally, I don’t think he necessarily does it more than other writers, he just doesn’t bother to be at all subtle about it! I mean, Aslan is literally executed and then raised from the dead! Tolkien (a good friend of Lewis’ also has a lot of religious symbolism in his work but I’ve rarely heard people be bothered by that. The Narnia books are definitely well-read in Christian circles but I do think they’re also fun and imaginative books for kids.

    2. Honestly, if I had read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as a kid, I would never have known there was so much symbolism in it. I would have just had fun and wondered what the heck a Turkish delight is.

    3. My first time having Turkish delight was a huge disappointment! I’d at least need chocolate if I was going to betray my brother!

    4. LOL! I’m so glad I read this comment. I was getting VERY angry with some homework I’m doing and decided to take a break. Thank you for making me smile 🙂

  4. I remember hearing about this book awhile back and being really curious about it. It’s a strange trend, these fictional books that focus on the wives of famous men, sort of based on the success of the Hemingway’s wives books. No doubt they are tricky to get right, there’s so much working against these authors, it’s a fine line they tread between being true to what happened vs. making an entertaining story for todays readers.

    1. You’re right, it is a trend. On the one hand, it’s nice to shine a new light on these women, especially someone like Joy who was actually a talented writer and could have been much more successful in a different time. On the other hand, it still feels weird to delve so deeply into a real person. I kept wondering what her sons must think of this book!

  5. This is very interesting – all I know of Joy was how Lewis processed his grief over her death and grappled with his faith in A Grief Observed, so I’m pleasantly surprised to find that she’s also a writer in her own right. Also, I loved Til We Have Faces when I first read it, and I actually reread the first half recently, maybe last year? It has a very different feel from what I’ve come to expect of Lewis’s works (murkier theology, I think) but so far it’s my favorite. I hope you’ll enjoy your reread! 🙂

    1. That’s mostly what I knew of her too. I haven’t read Til We Have Faces in years but I also remember it having a rather different feel from his other work. So it was especially interesting to read about her influence on that one.

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