In the improbable love story of Bronx native Joy Davidman and beloved Christian author, C. S. Lewis, Patti Callahan gives voice to historical figures often overlooked. Becoming Mrs. Lewis,written in first person from the viewpoint of Joy Davidman Lewis paints a vivid, realistic portrayal of a woman’s struggle to break through society’s narrow confines of womanhood in the 1950s. When Joy finally does, she finds the love she has always craved and, more importantly, becomes the person she was meant to be.
In the opening section we are introduced to Joy, a young mother bound to an abusive spouse. When her husband, Bill, calls on the phone once again threatening suicide, something within Joy breaks and she falls to her knees. And it is in that moment that she has an encounter with grace so strong that it will define the rest of her life. This experience causes her to reach out for answers, and the answers she finds come from corresponding with C. S. Lewis.
A writer, Joy’s career has been put on the back burner as marriage and motherhood become her expected priority. In spite of her great love for her children, she feels conflicted, putting her true self aside to try and be the woman her husband demands.
As she tells her cousin, “We were taught to dim our light so the men might shine, or at the very least look good. We were trained to appease, to please, to dance to the tune of their needs. We were . . . always scared to be who we were, to be ourselves.” But Joy cannot please her husband and feels there must be something more.
As Joy’s marriage continues to deteriorate, her friendship with Lewis grows. He becomes her mentor, her confidante, and her closest friend. When illness sidelines Joy and almost takes her life, she leaves her family to visit England to recuperate where she is finally able to meet Lewis. While she is gone, her husband begins an affair with her cousin which eventually leads to their divorce.
Joy returns home to the chaos of this impending divorce, but her heart remains in England. As soon as she is able, she returns there with her two sons in tow. Once she is settled, she and Lewis begin a collaboration that will last the rest of her life.
Callahan’s portrayal of the complexities of Joy Davidman’s nature and idealism is stunning. The truth in Davidman’s feelings and desires is a testimony to the many hours that went in to researching this novel. In portraying Davidman as a passionate and realistic individual, there are some instances when she comes across as adolescent and needy. In a novel that highlights the philosophical and theological companionship between Davidman and Lewis, lines like, “I felt his undeniable hard desire against my body” seem out of place and overdone.
The descriptions of the countryside around Oxford and the Kilns (the bachelors’ residence shared by Lewis and his brother Warnie) are wonderfully drawn. The many references to fairy stories come to life in the picturesque and lovely landscape created in the reader’s mind by Patti Callahan.
But where the author really shines is in her understanding of the politics and complexities of the English intellectual society. The story draws you in as Callahan describes both Cambridge and Oxford and the rules and decorum of these institutions. In spite of Davidman’s great intellect as a woman she is always on the outside looking in. Characters like J. R. R. Tolkien seem pedantic and snobbish, in particular in their attitudes toward the opposite sex. In spite of the prevailing attitude that women should be in the kitchen and not the university, Joy Davidman is able to create and enjoy a fulfilling, intellectual life.
Joy Davidman Lewis was a woman able to forge a life of her own choice—a life of books, stories, beautiful friendships, and, finally the deep and abiding love she always desired. Patti Callahan took a character on the periphery, one who has historically taken a back seat to her male counterpart, and given her a fierce, passionate voice. For those fans of Lewis curious about the woman who inspired A Grief Observed this book offers a convincing, fascinating glimpse into the private lives of two very remarkable individuals.
Cynthia A. Graham's most recent book is Between the Lies: A Novel (Blank Slate Press, 2018). Her novels have won 2015 and 2016 Midwest Book Awards for Mystery and a 2016 Independent Publisher's Gold Medal for Mystery/Cozy/Noir. Her historical novel Beulah's House of Prayer was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award.