Waiting a Lifetime for Love: A Review of Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan
A weary, young woman fettered to an adultering, abusive counterpart collapses to her knees after an unquestionable encounter with God in the late spring of 1946. Joy Gresham, a natural learner and seeker of truth, goes on a quest to understand her experience. And what better resource for understanding miraculous conversions than world renown Christian apologetic, C.S. Lewis? Their first letter and the proceeding love story is the fixture of the fictional novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis. Only a few pages into the story and a major conflict arises, Mrs. Lewis is married to someone else.
Historical fiction is a wide and generous genre in that it allows writers and readers to explore liberties in the past. And the real life Lewis story has been shrouded in mystery for decades. A late in life marriage between two famous writers is interesting enough; add the breadth of Davidman and Lewis’ collection of more than twenty-five published works and readers are bound to be curious and connected. While writers might be intimidated by the large fan group surrounding the Lewis legacy, Patti Callahan, author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis and twelve other titles, embraces the liberties of the genre to color in the lives of Joy and Jack Lewis. She embellishes true moments that happened between Davidman and Lewis, confirmed by extensive deep diving into published diaries, writings, and accounts by close family and friends.
While her writing style is imaginative and vibrant, this novel lacks something crucial. Callahan waits to convict readers to care about this story until her Author’s Note posted at the end of the book. Throughout the novel, many of the contextual clues appear as if Callahan props the story up on the fame of C.S. Lewis. Yet in a recent interview with Christianity Today, she claims her goal for this novel is, “I want the world to know the woman not behind Lewis but next to him—the brilliant writer, the wife, the mother, and the eros-love he called his ‘whole world.’”
Even with Callahan’s talent illuminating Joy on the pages, my mind stretched during this book to justify the deeper significance of this relationship. Many famous and influential people fall in love and those experiences are transformative to their work. Callahan fell short answering how each Lewis became new selves as a result of their love to one another. They flourished but did not experience metamorphosis.
Despite the misplaced purpose, Callahan organizes her text carefully and enjoyably. I loved the foreshadowing element she employed at each chapter’s start through Joy’s published sonnets. She is knowledgeable of both authors and a studied writer herself. By her intentional curation, two lines prepared me for the whole chapter in a way that created fun anticipation guessing at the coming events.
The title remains true to the course and pace of the Lewis’ love story. It was a process of becoming. There was never anything impulsive, abrupt, aggressive, or involuntary which surprised me, due to the contrast of the most formative love story in their lives, falling in love with God. Many times reading I found myself skipping sections to progress the journey of their friendship which spanned seven years before their marriage began. The story has a pulse, Callahan brings it back to life every time the excitement mellows and I want to close the cover. She is so well informed on the intricacies of the story, like Mary Poppins she keep pulling something I want to know out of the bag.
Perusing the shelves, I would be attracted to this book. Callahan is wise to explore the niche and dependability of fan readers. C.S. Lewis has a strong following. But this story is written as a borrow, not buy historical fiction. It accomplishes the job of informing me of Joy’s journey becoming the wife of a great writer; but it does not compel me to share with other readers, book lovers, or Lewis fans. In the end, Joy did not seem to move Lewis toward transformation. That role was reserved for God, a fact we can appreciate. I believe this is one love story in history that was special between two people alone.
Here are a few other titles you might read!