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. Judith Rose says:

    It’s been quite a while since I read the book, but I remember that Jane herself said she was “surprised by joy” at giving one of her paintings to be judged after years of furiously keeping her art to herself. And, Clara at first believed the painting to be horrible, then realized it was shimmering and was brilliant. And, more tenuous, I’m sure, is her death in the woods where she painted alone and died alone, as well as her home, full of art and clippings on the walls, as I remember. By the way, Three Pines itself is a “surprise of joy” to everyone who comes upon it, as is the entire series of books. It’s so uncommon for a mystery series to be seriously literate character studies. I love all the residents of Three Pines and those who come upon it and love it, too. If I had time, I would read the book again so my comments would be more lucid and connected to the question. (I am planning to reread the entire series before August 29, but I haven’t started, yet.)

  2. Carmen Fraenkel says:

    Thanks for the many hours of enjoyable reading. Read all your books and I’m looking forward to the next one. And to as many as you could continue gifting us with your exquisite writing.

  3. Lura Marshall says:

    When I met you this past summer in Kansas City, I was filled with Joy as you seemed so genuinely filled with Joy at speaking and meeting us! I love these tidbits and back stories to the Gamache books. I have recommended these books countless times and always share your post!
    Thank you Louise for these fabulous stories.

    • Mary Miller says:

      Hello to a fellow Kansas Citian. I was not able to attend Louise Penny’s KC visit, sadly, so am glad to “connect with” someone who was there. I am looking forward to re-reading the series and appreciate these comments.

  4. As a groupie of both C.S. Lewis and Louise Penny, this piece of connected-ness touched my heart today. I have read all of Louise Penny’s books. Each one has surprised me with joy, not just the joy of Louise Penny’s craft, but how the light within each story plumbs the depths of darkness (these are murder mysteries?) I read “How The Light Gets In” first – it’s still my favorite because being surprised by joy is also about forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others sets us free to freely be all we are, and can, be. To see, and be, surprised by joy. Like Jane’s wacky painting in “Still Life,” she saw joy in the community all around her, yet knowing their faults.

    Many thanks to Louise Penny for setting us free to experience joy through her writing!

  5. Patricia Hopkins says:

    It wasn’t until my second reading of “Still Life” when Jane tells Claire that her tears are because she’s been surprised by joy, that I began to make the connection. I then found the phrase running as a thread through successive books and even when Louise writes about Michael’s death. I’m glad we are doing this as even as I find something new each time I re-read one of the books, I get insights from other readers comments.

  6. Lynn Javoroski says:

    Clara believes in a God who continues to surprise with joy. There’s a hymn, “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”; the last words of the 3rd verse are “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.” Clara understood that Jane looked forward to just one more surprise of joy. An excellent choice for the last words of a believer!

  7. Jan Zahrly says:

    Thank you, LP, for the books, the mysteries, the joy, the peacefulness, the belonging and so many more things. Some time ago, I started a notebook about the thoughts or sayings of various characters that are spiritual. I realized that you are a spiritual person and that calms and blesses me. peace, janz

  8. Linda Dye (now LaRose, just got married) says:

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. Your books are so full of grace and such good reads. I remember getting the first one for probably $2.99 on the Nook and, thinking that you were a first time novelist, being so taken with it that I told everyone that here is a writer I would emulate, if I still wrote anything. I admired you so much and built you up only to find out later how many awards you already had won! How embarrassing to find out I did not “discover” you! Keep writing for as long as we live. I will always, always love your words and your stories.

  9. Jeannine Mitchell says:

    I, too love this series of wonderful books. I feel the characters that people the pages give joy. No matter the dire circumstances I find comfort in them.
    I am looking forward to the Aug. release and visiting Three Pines again!!

  10. Kim C. Marscher says:

    Years after writing “Surprised By Joy,” Lewis met and married Joy Gresham.
    Interesting, right?

  11. Judith Merrill says:

    And what a joy it is to read every comment from you who love and enjoy this wonderful series. I’m currently rereading from the beginning before I treat myself to A Great Reckoning. I couldn’t begin it until I knew another book was coming. I’ve been reading for over 70 years and Louise Penny is the only author who consistently makes me laugh out loud and weep within the same book, and often on the same page. She is a blessing to us all. May she and Armand Gamache continue to touch our lives for many years to come.

  12. Diane Zimanski says:

    The reminder that you have not always been as you are now always surprises me, because your books feel so naturally joyful to me. Each time I finish a Gamache book I am more hopeful, more tolerant, more humble about everything. Thank you.

  13. Liz Healy says:

    I remember first readin Still Life a few years ago and was captivated by the first description of Clara. Something about the way she was described captured me in a way few books have. Surprised by Joy , indeed. I have not been disappointed since. Thanks for this.

  14. Cheryle Fisher says:

    Thank you for this new adventure. As a fairly new reader to the Gamache series I am blown away by the complexities in each book. Your books are labeled as crime mysteries, but there is so much more to them. They are actually a genre to themselves. I look forward to starting each new book to me. The feelings of calm amidst the atrocities is remarkable. I especially like the literary and art references that is an integral part of each. Again thank you.

  15. Christina says:

    Louise, I am truly grateful for your inspiring work. My sister recommended the Gamache series to me & I am so very much looking forward to August!!!
    Hello from Germany :-))

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