The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis
By: Patti Callahan Henry
Publisher: HarperCollins/ Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: 10/2/2018
My Rating: 5 Stars ++
Q&A with the Author
Top Books of 2018
“Patti Callahan seems to have found the story she was born to tell in this tale of unlikely friendship turned true love between Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.” —Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife
In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice. In a God beyond the religion of her birth, she found faith.
From New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan comes an exquisite novel of Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy.
In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.
At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas, a love of God, and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.
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Patti Callahan Henry has been a favorite author of mine throughout the years, an avid fan –with twelve New York Times bestselling novels – she has been hailed as a “fresh new voice” in contemporary Southern fiction. I have had the opportunity of reading each of them and thoroughly enjoyed.
In her latest historical fiction, the author dazzles! She vividly re-creates the world of Joy and C. S. Lewis in BECOMING MRS. LEWIS. What starts as a spiritual quest turns into history. Moving and riveting, a singular woman whom C. S. Lewis deeply loved and profoundly influenced his later writings. However, there is much about Joy some overlook behind the shadow of this influential man.
We have heard the author reference in her interviews, “The endless complications and multifaceted dimensions of love and desire fascinate me—the promises these feelings prompt us to make.”
Whether she is writing about friendship, forgiveness, love, the power of family, self-discovery or second chances, the author writes with lyrical prose, deep emotion from the heart, and a master at her craft.
However, in BECOMING MRS. LEWIS, the author shines. A literary work of art! Illuminating. Extremely moving and memorable. A compelling and convincing book you will treasure. (Cover love).
Before you finish the book, you will be returning to works of both Helen Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis —and devouring in a new light. A beautiful love story—in more ways than one. Two strong minds coming together as one as they try to understand life, spirituality, choices, and relationships.
As Patti reiterates, this novel is written in a key of empathy for this extraordinary woman. She hopes to capture some of Joy’s courage, conflicted and sometimes disparaged choices, as well as her abiding love for a man we know as C. S. Lewis, but whom she identified as a mentor, best friend, and in the end her love, and husband. The man she knew as Jack. Indeed, Patti, you have accomplished this and more. Joy would be proud.
If you have read the author’s previous books, you may have seen her scattered quotes from C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a scholar and teacher at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities who is best known for his Narnia Chronicles for children, was an atheist for most of his early life and converted to Christianity in 1931. He was an Oxford don, a poet, an imaginative genius, a master at prose and theme.
“A talented debater and writer, Lewis published many works on a wide variety of topics—but the subjects that most interest me, especially as a writer, revolve around his exploration of human longing and the search for meaning. His writing has inspired me since I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child. The Screwtape Letters offers profound insights into human nature.”
Now, it is not surprising Henry would dive into her latest project, penning an extraordinary novel of Joy Davidman, a poet, writer, and the woman C. S. “Jack” Lewis “my whole world.” Writing as Patti Callahan, the author traces Joy’s story from New York to London to Oxford. Joy’s life was a big part of Lewis’s and his writing.
She breathes new life into a story, not often told. Through extensive research and travel, she speaks of the woman, not behind the man, but “beside him.” Now, for the first time, the author takes a closer look at this amazing woman.
BECOMING MRS. LEWIS is a remarkable story of a brilliant writer. She was a force of beautiful prose and intelligence. A sophisticated and complex woman often misunderstood. A multi-award- winning poet, a novelist, a critic, and protégé of the MacDowell Colony and much more. Her impressive credentials graduated from college at fifteen and received her master’s degree in fiction from Columbia.
Yet there were conflicting narratives about her life. Some thought she was a brash New Yorker who inserted herself into Lewis’s life. However, looking back to the era, this was a complicated, yet courageous woman.
Everything about Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and Christian apologist living in England. She was a married woman who lived in Upstate New York with her two young sons.
After C.S. Lewis went public with his conversion and commitment to Jesus Christ, controversy hounded him until his death. From his lack of theological sophistication, and other fundamentalists attacking his interpretation of scripture and Christian traditions.
But none of these issues caused more stirring than the furor that surrounded his marriage to Helen Joy Davidman. In the mind of many of C.S. Lewis's friends, it was bad enough that a bachelor nearly sixty years old married a woman of forty. But to make matters worse, she was an American divorcee who also happened to be Jewish and the mother of two boys.
How could this match possibly come about? On paper, there was not a more impossible pairing. But in the end proved a memorable love story.
A Q&A Elevator Ride with
Author Patti Callahan Henry
The author takes us back to 1927, Bronx New York to 1946 — marriage to William Lindsay Gresham (Bill). Two sons, Davy and Douglas. From an atheist moved to pray when tragedy came. A breakdown, an alcoholic and unfaithful husband, tearing him back to the bottle. She prayed for help. But to whom?
An unquestionable belief. Her doubt about the Christ. A Christ, C. S. Lewis apparently believed in. Leading her to read an article by a Beloit College professor Chad Walsh. “Apostle to the Skeptics” an in-depth study of an Oxford fellow in England. A man named C. S. Lewis who was a converted atheist. Of course, she had heard of him and read some of this work.
However, soon she would read everything he wrote, being drawn to the wisdom hidden in the story: The Screwtape Letters.
There is much which occurred leading up to the introduction of these two literary souls in 1950. Patti Callahan takes us on the journey. The before and after.
The C.S. Lewis and Chad Walsh connection provided the beginning of a spark. At Chad's suggestion, she read everything Lewis wrote as well as others. Between the New York pastor and her mentor, Chad Walsh, Joy grew in faith and began manifesting signs of genuine conversion and repentance.
At Chad Walsh's urging, Joy wrote to C.S. Lewis about some of her thoughts on his books. Although Walsh assured Joy that Lewis always answered his correspondence, it took her two years to find the courage to write. When she did, in January 1950, Lewis's brother noted in his journal that Jack had received a fascinating letter from a most interesting American woman, Mrs. Gresham.
For the next two and a half years Joy and C.S. Lewis carried on a rich correspondence that intellectually and spiritually encouraged each of them. Over that quarter decade, Joy's health and family problems opened the way for the famous English author and his talented American pen friend to meet.
“Who is this God I now believe in? What am I to do with this Truth? Was it real at all or have I deluded myself with another cure-all that cures nothing?” Joy to Lewis.
She wanted to him to see her. She wanted him to know her.
“Out of the corner of his letters I experienced a different link of life: one of peace and connection and intellectual intimacy, of humor and kindness, and I indulged.”
During the late 1940s Joy's health deteriorated. She suffered from nervous exhaustion while trying to raise the boys and write enough to pay all the bills. Joy finished several writing projects, including a novel, Weeping Bay, that came out with Macmillan in early 1950. Then while writing a book-length Jewish-Christian interpretation of the Ten Commandments, she became gravely ill with jaundice. Her doctor ordered rest - preferably away from the pressures of her chaotic house and family.
During all this, Joy received a request from her first cousin, Renee with two children from Alabama, desperately trying to escape her abusive and alcoholic husband. Joy happily took them under her wing and the visit proved to be a help to her, as well. This provided supportive for Joy to get away to write and rejuvenate and finally meet C. S Lewis.
She left America. She also left behind those who did not understand. She hated leaving the boys behind, but she knew she would return stronger and Renee was supportive. Bill wanted her to do what was best to heal (at the time). However, her church community scowled. Other women talked about her.
“Did they not feel the anxiety that comes when the inner light rises and cries out, “Let me live”?
She soon was seduced by England. There is much in between. She would return home, but this was not the end.
However, from the Kilns garden, Oxford, Magdalen, to Ireland, Greece, Emerald Isle, to the Old Inn in Crawforshire—their storytelling, their extended family, and their love. The couple only married for three short years. The ecstasy in pain, the redemption of the past, love that surpassed all understanding. Books have been written, and their stories have been dissected. A remarkable couple whose lives intersected and became as one.
“Grace does not tell us how long we have in our life, or what comes next—that’s why grace is given only in the moment. Unmerited mercy is never earned.”
When Joy had to leave in 1960, more than ten years after she opened his first letter. He grieved. He wrote of this enveloping grief, and it became one of his most beloved books —A Grief Observed.
After their marriage, he became a wonderful stepfather to Joy’s sons. He wrote two more books. These books and these works would not exist without Joy’s love and life, without his love for her.
Lewis believed that Joy helped complete him as a person, and she acknowledged that he did the same for her, reflected in both their works. From a Grief Observed to The Four Loves. Those of us who have admired C. S. Lewis also should be grateful for Joy Davidman Lewis as well, since his collection would not be what it is today without their connection.
“A compelling, page-turning narrative . . . BECOMING MRS. LEWIS we hope is the first of many books from Patti Callahan that re-examines history from a fresh, female contemporary point of view. Essential women, making an impact on in the world, often behind the scenes.
A special thank you to Thomas Nelson @TNZFiction and #NetGalley for an early reading copy of #BecomingMrsLewis. Also pre-ordered the hardcover. Cannot wait!
Q&A with Author
Making full use of historical documentation, Callahan has created an incredible portrait of a complex woman.” —Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)
“Readers familiar with the life and work of C.S. Lewis will relish learning about the woman who inspired some of his most famous books. Others will find the slow burn of the romance between the two mesmerizing. All fans of women's fiction, particularly works with religious themes, will appreciate reading about this vibrant and intelligent woman.” —Booklist
“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.” —The New York Journal of Books
“Patti Callahan seems to have found the story she was born to tell in this tale of unlikely friendship turned true love between Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis, that tests the bounds of faith and radically alters both of their lives. Their connection comes to life in Callahan’s expert hands, revealing a connection so persuasive and affecting, we wonder if there’s another like it in history. Luminous and penetrating.”
—Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife
“With an artist’s touch, Patti has woven flesh and bone onto an unlikely love story and given us a glimpse into a beautiful and storied romance. I read this through an increasing sense of awe and admiration. By the final page, I realized Patti had crafted an intimate and daring literary achievement.”
—Charles Martin, New York Times bestselling author of The Mountain Between Us
“Patti Callahan Henry breathes wondrous fresh life into one of the greatest literary love stories of all time . . . The result is a deeply moving story about love and loss that is transformative and magical.”
—Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Orphan’s Tale
“I was swept along, filled with hope, and entirely beguiled, not only by the life lived behind the veil of C. S. Lewis’s books but also by the woman who won his heart. A literary treasure from first page to last.”
—Lisa Wingate, New York Times bestselling author of Before We Were Yours
“Profoundly evocative, revealing an intimate view of a woman whose love and story had never been fully told . . . until now . . . Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a tour de force and the must-read of the season!”
—Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of Beach House Reunion
“Patti Callahan somehow inhabits Davidman, taking her readers inside the writer’s hungry mind and heart. We keenly feel Davidman’s struggle to become her own person at a time (the 1950s) when women had few options . . . An astonishing work of biographical fiction."
—Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe
“Patti Callahan has written my favorite book of the year . . . It is both a meditation on marriage and a whopping grand adventure. Touching, tender, and triumphant, this is a love story for the ages.”
—Ariel Lawhon, author of I Was Anastasia
Behind the Book
I am so both grateful and thrilled to share this novel with you—Becoming Mrs. Lewis—the Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis.
Poet and novelist Joy Davidman once wrote in an essay, “What in the world would ever become of us if we should ever grow brave?” In this novel we answer that question as we follow Joy on a decade long journey of transformation from a wife and mother in upstate New York to the beloved wife of C. S. Lewis.
Years ago, this story grabbed me by the heart and would not let me go. I wanted, no!, I deeply desired to tell the story of this fiery and intelligent woman who changed her life so dramatically in a time when women were not always encouraged to pursue their arts or passions, to save their own lives as best they could. (continued below)
The idea for this novel began decades before I became a writer myself. In hindsight, it all started when I was young and I fell into my own kind of love with Lewis and read The Screwtape Letters, years before I knew what the words satire or allegory meant. Then of course I fell through the wardrobe into Narnia. I read Lewis’s other works later in life with as much abandon and fascination. When I read A Grief Observed and felt Lewis’s palpable pain in losing the great love of his life, I wanted to know more about the woman he loved so fiercely.
Who was this poet and novelist who had lived a world away from Lewis both culturally and literally and yet fallen in love with him and he with her? I set off to research Joy in both her writings and in travel to the Wade Center where her papers are kept alongside C. S. Lewis’s, and then onto London and Oxford. I immersed myself in her fascinating, heartbreaking and beautiful world.
I discovered as you will also, that Joy isn’t interesting merely because C. S. Lewis fell in love with her. Not even close. Come meet Joy and travel with her on this courageous journey from New York to London, onto Oxford and into the enclaves of Oxford University and C. S. Lewis’s heart.
February 13, 2018
About the Author
Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, including the upcoming The Bookshop at Water’s End (July 2017). A finalist in the Townsend Prize for Fiction, an Indie Next Pick an OKRA pick, and a multiple nominee for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Novel of the Year, Patti is a frequent speaker and luncheons, book clubs and women’s groups. The mother of three children, she now lives in both Mountain Brook, Alabama and Bluffton, South Carolina with her husband. Read More