When Joy Davidman Gresham had a spiritual experience convincing her there was a God, she wrote to British author C.S. Lewis looking for answers. What followed was a correspondence that would become a meeting of minds and eventually a marriage of hearts.
Six months after the first letter was sent, C.S. Lewis responded. At the time, Joy was trapped in a tumultuous marriage with Billy Gresham. Like herself, Billy was a writer, but one who resorted to alcohol and affairs to numb his anger at not selling manuscripts. His work always took precedent over Joy’s, and he expected her to give up her intellectual dreams in order to be the perfect housewife, taking care of their two boys and putting dinner on the table. As their marriage went from bad to worse, Joy’s health began to deteriorate. She began to take refuge from the horrors of everyday life in the letters she regularly received from the Oxford don, seventeen years her senior. Eventually, she took an extended trip to England to recuperate, to do research, and to meet her mentor, C.S. Lewis.
In this exquisite novel, Patti Callahan captures the great divide between Joy, a Jewish New Yorker, and “Jack,” an aging English professor. She also shows the meeting of minds, the yearning of hearts, and just how influential Joy was on Lewis’ work. Many obstacles conspired to keep the two apart (not the least of which was Joy’s divorce), and anyone who has seen Shadowlands knows that the ending of the book is destined to be a real tear-jerker.
The story alternates between Joy’s first person narrative and excerpts of letters, mostly those exchanged by her and Lewis. The flow of the book was seamless, and I could not discern whether these letters were original or fictitious (a question which the Author’s Note answered for me at the end of the book). I recognized many quotes from Lewis’ works in the dialogue, and I came away from the book wanting to dive back into his fiction and his philosophical writings.
This book highlights the fact that Joy Davidman was Lewis’ intellectual equal, and that he highly prized both her own work and her contributions to his work. As with all fictionalized biographies, I am sure some liberties have been taken, but nevertheless, this book resonates as a beautifully told love story and an homage to both the author of Narnia and the woman who moved from philia to eros in his affections.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.