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. Gee-Gee Smith says:

    Please ignore the auto corrects.
    Fr. Rohr is a friar.

  2. Mary Miller says:

    My husband a I have just moved into our home for well and good. The anticipation fulfilled, after years of traveling for work, and the sheer pleasure of really being home in Maine, is a joy. Every minute is precious. Every box unpacked is a surprise. As I wrestle with the boxes, I am listening to A Trick of the Light. It is like having the crew at Three Pines help with the unpacking! Thank you, Louise, so glad to have found you…so grateful.

  3. Linda says:

    Louise, could you possibley post a list of the books being discussed, ahead of time for those of us who might want to read them and rely on libraries?

  4. Linda, they will probably be discussed in order written or at least they have in the past. I rely on my library often ,too.

  5. Linda says:

    Yes but we aren’t discussing her books, we’re discussing literary references within her books, which makes a difference either way.

  6. Please excuse me for trying to help. I won’t again.

  7. When the re-read started in 2014, I was interested because I had read each book as soon as it published. I had no idea what would come from the re-read. After the it was finished, Paul surprised us with The Bistro. Each year we have examined the books with a different emphasis. 2015 brought The Real Place, the real sites that inspired locations in the series. 2016 was The Nature of the Feast, wonderful discussions and recipes based on meals in the books. Cultural Reference for this year’s discussion of LP’s books.
    I was “Surprised by Joy” when Paul told us he had set up the Bistro so we readers could continue to discuss the books as well as other topics.
    Thank you, Louise, for your books and sharing your life with us. Your strength strengthens others.
    Thank you, Paul, for The Bistro and the yearly discussion of LP’s books as well as our discussion of each new book.

  8. Sylvia Harris says:

    Louise, thank you so very much for your insights! I’m a long-time devotee, but haven’t posted for quite a while. My deep sympathy on the loss of your beloved Michael.
    I’m very grateful that you found the help you needed to achieve sobriety; I believe the whole of these experiences has given you the wisdom you share so beautifully in your books. I always look forward to your next book! I will explore C.S. Lewis’s book – I have read others of his.

  9. Bettie Westphall says:

    I want to form a book club. Included would be everyone listed above on posts. They sound like those I want in my tribe. Our leader, Louise! I finished the twelfth book just ten days ago. I will begin again soon to avoid missing any wisdom. I want Ruth’s poems on a smaller card to see often. Other’s that made my heart feel I was going home as I began each new book. Joy!

  10. Nicki says:

    There are two series of books which I re-read every year….Louise Penny and Jane Austen, including Lady Susan. The completely human characters in each resonate with me in so many ways….the virtuous and the fallen, the forgivable and the unforgivable. C.S. Lewis, one of my mentors, has been a blessing to the world of children and adults since he first put pen to paper. I often wonder how Lewis and Tolkien, great writers and conversationalists would respond to today’s technology many of whose users are intent on desecrating both and the joyous faith they shared.

  11. Love that you find SURPRISED BY JOY so meaningful. Imagine how much your Michael and CS Lewis would have enjoyed one another. Two of a kind.
    Girls at the gym LOVED your last book, and we each wrote on the cover’s inside, of our pleasure. We look forward to the next.

  12. Les Selby says:

    Lead me not into temptation…
    I have not ordered Glass Houses for I am committed to rereading all of the Gamache books before I proceed. I am not one to reread books…never have been, but with the Chief Inspector I am making an exception. I have not ordered the new book because at 87, I succumb to temptation regularly (witness my waist line,) and I really do want to reread all leading up to Glass Houses. If I had Glass Houses here I might not be able to resist temptation. I hope I am granted enough time to accomplish this. Louise, Dear Heart, you keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

  13. Ann Elliott says:

    I have just read all the comments & many say much better than I can what I feel also about Louise Penny’s books. I look forward to the Newsletters also. My daughter & I have all the books,some in hard cover & some paper back. I just reread Still Life because it was our church book club selection for March at my suggestion. Now Dead Cold is out waiting for me to reread.My daughter & I hope to drive to Three Pines area in the spring, when it is really here, & visit the store for some Three Pines pins etc. Thank you Louise for such very great reading.

  14. Ludora says:

    I am so moved by such amazing people I find who love this author, series, and,characters as much as,I do. Thank you all for your insight. I must now download Surprised by Joy. Love to you all.

  15. Jan Feltham says:

    I am going through my own health journey searching for my answers. I am always surprised by the joy I find through this process. Thank you for reminding of it!

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