Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

In the bedroom Clara picked up the well-worn book beside Jane’s bed, C.S. Lewis’s, Surprised by Joy. It smelled of Floris. (Still Life, page 242, Trade Paper Edition)

Surprised by Joy by CS LewisOriginally published in 1955, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life is C.S. Lewis’s look back on his conversion to Christianity and the idea of what actual “joy” means to him.

The title of Lewis’s memoir comes from William Wordsworth’s 1815 sonnet, “Surprised By Joy — Impatient As The Wind”, which was written in the wake of his three-year old daughter’s death and begins as follows:

Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?

At face value, a strange comparison—joy and death—but the world of Three Pines, as summed up by both readers and reviewers alike, is just that, a place where light contrasts dark, goodness exists with evil, innocence engages experience, and hope flourishes with fear.

Here, Louise describes the significance of Lewis’s tome:

“I came across it early in my sobriety. And that was a magical time, because I thought I was going to die by my own hand. I was thirty-five and I couldn’t see going through another year of life, never mind another forty years. So when I asked for help and got it through a twelve step program, it seemed — and perhaps it was — a miracle. At that time, I was surprised by joy, because I had been so dark and so negative and so afraid. Then, to find happiness and the freedom that comes from not having to drink every day and finding friends, and finding myself, and finding real joy. That’s when I came across the phrase and the book Surprised by Joy.”

And this is from Louise’s January 2009 Blog Post: “At 2 years sober we’re given a medallion by our sponsors and asked what phrase we’d like engraved on it. I thought about that and chose – Surprised by Joy. A phrase I used deliberately, with gratitude, in Still Life. I keep that medallion with me always. To remember.”

Louise also had a bench made and adorned with a “Surprised by Joy” plaque for her husband, Michael’s birthday in 2007 (that’s him reflected with Trudy the dog below!). As she says, “When I met and fell in love with him I was, indeed, surprised by joy. And he was the most joyous person I’d ever met.”

Happy Birthday Michael bench

Sadly, Michael passed away last year and here is a rendition of the plaque that will soon be placed on a bench in New York’s Central Park. The bench sits on an idyllic hill and faces Louise’s apartment.

Surprised by Joy plaque

The quote below from Lewis’s work succinctly sums a theme that continuously runs through the work of Louise Penny.

“I pay respect to wisdom not to strength.”

You can almost see Gamache saying those exact same words.

Discussion Question

1. What did Clara mean by having “Surprised by Joy” engraved on Jane Neal’s tombstone?

Discussion on “Cultural Inspirations from Still Life

  1. Fran Wheeler says:

    The world today so often feels like a dark place, full of danger. And then I think about Three Pines, and I am reminded that there is always light. Light is never overwhelmed by darkness. However dark it seems, there is light to be found, and that is a very encouraging thought.

  2. Cynthia Marshall says:

    Thank you Louise Penny for the gift of the Three Pines mysteries. each of these books has spoken to a place in my soul and I look forward to the next one eagerly. there is an innate knowing in each novel as the characters continue to evolve and unfold in ways that are identical to life itself but I feel we often overlook in our mad rush through life. I lost my husband 5 years ago and now feel a deeper bond with Louise Penny. the bench is a wonderful memorial to a special gentleman and all readers of the Gamache books will feel they are sitting on the bench in Three Pines that plays such a part in each novel.

  3. Suzanne Boucher says:

    Your books always bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes, regularly re-read the series just for the joy of it. I love these newsletters, too. Please don’t slow down (I selfishly beg)…

  4. Juanita Giesbrecht says:

    All the comments are so interesting to read so thank you everyone. I am not so much surprised by joy as delighted by it so have to think a little longer on the matter. I think I must read that particular book by CS Lewis. In the meantime I can hardly wait until the next book by Louise comes out.

  5. Clara Turoff says:

    I am so very sorry to hear of your husband’s death. Joy has been commented on forever.
    My favorite quote would be,” Weeping endureth for the night; but, joy cometh in the morning”.

  6. Clara Turoff says:

    Loss of a loved one never gets easier. It gets different. Joy has been written about forever.
    My favorite quote is “Weeping endureth for a night; but, joy cometh in the morning”.

  7. Cynthia Carr says:

    I am touched by all the compassionate comments above. Louise Penny’s books are such a gift to us and I learn from each one, and you all are reaching out and teaching me, as well. Thank you.

  8. I think that you are one of the most generous writers I’ve read. The broad human values in your characters give us all hope and strength. Your own sharing of your personal life is the most amazing gift of all. Thank you,

  9. mary Ferwerda says:

    I love these books. Read them and then listen to them; sometimes many times. My daughter does also. I want to live in Three Pines (even in winter). I (actually) do when I read these books.
    It is all so real. A new book coming? Yeah!!

  10. Ray friesen says:

    Penny’s books have been a huge part of my life and Three Pines and important village in my cancer/chemo journey. Now I have an even better sense why. Thank you Louise Penny!!! As for the rest of you read her books for sure, absolutely, no questions asked. You will not regret the time spent in Three Pines.

  11. Mary Catton says:

    As a “senior” I enrolled in a writing class titled “Writing Your Life Stories”. I plan to use these cultural inspirations from the Ganache stories as gentle needles to probe my memories and enrich my life stories. I am an avid and addicted reader, and must say that I’ve never enjoyed any series as much as these wonderful stories. I find myself constantly wanting to see, hear, smell, taste and feel more. I want to see Clare’s painting of Ruth as the Virgin Mary; I want to hear that young policeman play on the priceless violin the fiddle tune his father taught him as it sings through the rafters of the little cabin; I want to read the book about the Downs Syndrome children; I want to walk through the forest; I want to sit by the fire in that cozy bistro and eat and eat and eat.

  12. This senior agrees with you. The books are the best. Anxiously awaiting Glass Houses.

  13. Susan Rose Murray says:

    Doing my best not to be impatient about the next in the Gamache series. Louise Penny is my favorite writer!

  14. Al Halfrey says:

    Louise:
    It’s been many years for me also. Don’t forget…”One Day at a Time”

  15. Diane Lusardi says:

    I am anxiously waiting for the next book Glass Houses. I always “read” each book to savor every word. Then I “listen” to the book on CD and I enjoy the telling in a different voice. My one regret is not keeping a journal of the phrases that have been my favorites. Guess I’ll have to start the series again and do just that. Thank you Louise.

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