When a mom writer friend of mine recommended Becoming Mrs. Lewis to me, I immediately looked it up at my library. Like many others, I’ve grown up reading C. S. Lewis’ fiction but I know very little about his wife. Joy Davidman Gresham and C. S. Lewis met via letters between New York and Oxford, but theirs is an exceptional and inspiring love story.
Patti Callahan brings Joy—and all her struggles as a mom, writer, and lover—to life in the pages of this fascinating novel.
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Becoming Mrs. Lewis plot summary
As the novel opens, Joy is already an established author, wife and mom. She’d grown up in a Jewish home, became an atheist and then a communist, and now struggles with what to believe. A “God moment” in her son’s bedroom starts her investigation of Christianity. At the advice of a fellow writer, she and her husband Bill reach out to author C. S. Lewis, a fellow atheist-turned-Christian, for advice.
Letters begin to fly back and forth across the Atlantic as Lewis and Joy continue to explore Christianity. They find in each other equally sharp and questioning minds, and discover they’ve read and enjoyed many of the same authors as children. Joy’s journey to Christianity mirrors Lewis’s, even as Bill leaves both the conversation and the quest for answers.
Joy finds solace in her pen-friendship with Lewis as she faces struggles with her health and with Bill’s alcoholism, infidelity, and abusive rages. There are brief moments of happiness when Bill stops drinking and she’s able to hope that they can mend their relationship. She does her best to carve out time to write among her household duties, as both she and Bill support their family by what they churn out on their typewriters.
When Joy’s health takes a turn for the worse and her doctor recommends an extended vacation, she decides to go to England. The vacation will provide her with a chance to research for a novel and visit some friends, including Lewis—now known to her as Jack. Her cousin moves in to help Bill take care of Douglas and Davy, and Joy catches a steamship to London.
Over the next several months, Joy explores London, Oxford, Cambridge, and other places in the UK. She researches her novel. She sees various doctors and dentists to address of her health problems. And she meets Jack and his brother Warnie, deepening their friendship. She begins helping Jack edit his material and collaborating with Warnie on a novel idea.
Letters from Bill become few and far between, revealing little about what’s happening back in New York. When Bill reveals he’s had an affair with her cousin and wants a divorce, Joy is devastated.
Joy returns home to a complete disaster. The end of her marriage is messy and complicated, but finally, she moves with her sons to England to start a new life together. As the boys attend boarding school and Joy struggles to support them on her writing, her friendship with Jack deepens. While she finds herself falling in love with him, he seems happy to keep their friendship as just that.
Then a health crisis changes everything.
My thoughts on this novel
I found the start of Becoming Mrs. Lewis a little bit slow, but the further I got into it, the more I felt invested in Joy’s story. Like her, I’ve questioned God’s love for me, and struggled to balance motherhood and writing, and had to start a new life again as a single mom. Patti does a great job of capturing Joy’s inner life as she faces each struggle and tries to decide what to do.
I loved imagining these two writers sitting in Jack’s home in the Kilns, swapping ideas for novels and editing each other’s works. Joy is the author of several novels as well as several works of nonfiction, like Jack. He wrote the foreword for the UK edition of Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments, prompting better sales for it there than it had enjoyed in the US. Joy also meets “Tollers” (aka J. R. R. Tolkien) and earns money by typing manuscripts for other writers in her circle of friends.
After reading Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I really wanted to read more books both by Joy Davidman and by C. S. Lewis. Unfortunately, Joy’s fiction appears to be out of print; currently, only Smoke on the Mountain and A Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poems, as well as a collection of her letters, are available.
I also realized I’ve only read Narnia and Lewis’s sci-fi, and now I’d like to check out his other books which Joy mentioned were instrumental in her conversion and which she helped Lewis write. (Callahan speculates that Joy was actually Lewis’s co-author for Till We Have Faces).
More about Helen Joy Davidman
Becoming Mrs. Lewis also made me look up more about Helen Joy Davidman and her life. As the novel is written from her point of view, of course she doesn’t brag about much and focuses more (like so many of us!) on her own faults. Joy aced an IQ test in elementary school, graduated high school early, and earned a B.A. and then an M.A. with honours at age 19. She had a huge love for books and also a photographic memory, allowing her to play piece by Chopin after one glance at a page of music or recite Shakespeare after one reading.
Joy taught at university for a year and then took a position writing and editing a magazine. She published a book of poetry and then her first novel, Anya and even worked for MGM for six months as a screenwriter (none of her scripts were ever produced). At age 27, she married William Gresham, a fellow novelist and communist. They had two sons, Davy and Douglas. Both Joy and William continued to write to support themselves, although Joy’s second novel, Weeping Bay, was not a success.
Joy and Jack only knew each other for a decade. Joy began writing him to him in 1950. She moved to England two years later. They were civilly married in 1956, to prevent Joy from being sent back to the US when her visa wasn’t renewed, and sacramentally married in 1957. She died of leukemia in 1960 at the age of only 45. C. S. Lewis continued to care for her sons after her death, but died only three years later himself.