Year of First Publication: 2015
Number of Pages: 413
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Subjects: Writers, poets, artists, literature
Find it on the Book Depository here. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)
Hello again, and happy new year! I know things have been quiet around here lately, but I’m back now, and with a review of a book that I think more than a few of you will enjoy.
Like many people, I’m sure, I probably would have never read Joy if it hadn’t been for C. S. Lewis. After all, for the past fifty years, Joy Davidman has been little more than an add-on to her famous second husband’s biography. It’s rare that Joy’s story gets told at all, and even rarer that it gets told truthfully. This book—the first full-length biography of Joy—comes as a breath of fresh air, telling the story of Joy’s remarkable life as it actually happened.
Normally, I wouldn’t spend much time at all recapping the life of the person whose biography I’m reviewing. (As an old friend of mine liked to say, “Well, read it and you’ll find out!”) But, since some of the people reading this review may have never heard of Joy Davidman, I’ll give a very quick overview of her life.
Joy was born in New York City in 1915. She was an award-winning poet, a novelist, and an editor who already had a thriving literary career when she married author William Lindsay Gresham at the age of 27. Problems on both sides eventually led to the couple’s separation (they weren’t formally divorced until 1954), after which Joy, along with her and William’s two sons, moved to England, where the cost of living was lower and she already had several friends. One of those friends was C. S. Lewis, whom she had begun corresponding with years earlier. Lewis and Joy were married civilly in 1956, in a last-ditch effort to keep her in England after the government refused to renew her visa. It wasn’t until 1957, shortly after Joy was diagnosed with bone cancer, that she and Lewis were married in the Anglican Church. They enjoyed three years together before Joy passed away in 1960.
From what I know of Joy Davidman biographies up to now, it seems that Joy is always portrayed either as A) a snake-like seductress who saw Lewis as one more conquest to be made, or B) a helpless victim whom Lewis rescued from her cruel, abusive ex-husband. Personally, I always believed that the truth was closer to this second picture—I should have known that reality couldn’t be nearly as black-and-white as either of these.
Reading this book, I learned things about all of the actors involved that changed the way I look at them now, and not always for the better. I also learned things about some of these people that made me realize how unfair I had been to them in the past. Usually, I wouldn’t be so quick to toss out the opinions that I (and a considerable number of other students of Lewis) had held for so long, but Santamaria’s research is hard to argue with: beginning this project around 2001, she spent over ten years studying letters and diaries, combing through university collections, and conducting interviews with those who had known Joy and her family. Unlike Joy’s other biographers, Santamaria also had access to a recently-discovered trove of Joy’s previously unpublished letters, stories, and poems, many of which go a long way toward showing us the kind of person she was (pg. xii-xv). Despite competing opinions on her subject, I think Santamaria does an excellent job of staying above the fray and delivering the facts as she understands them.
That’s beside the fact that Santamaria is simply a great writer. Rather than simply list facts, Santamaria immerses her readers in the story and in the world Joy lived in. Even those who prefer fiction, I think, will enjoy Santamaria’s vivid, well-paced writing style. And this is only her first book! I can’t wait to see what she does in the future and I would love to read another biography from her.
By now, I’m sure all of the C. S. Lewis fans have gotten their copies of Joy and read them through, but if you’re still on the fence, I’d highly recommend this book. Besides being one of the best biographies I’ve read in a while, it also helps shed some light on a sadly overlooked woman and a love story that changed the face of literature.