Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Author: Thornton Wilder
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1927
Pages: 160

Rating - 7 out of 10


In 1714 Lima, Peru, a bridge breaks, and five people crossing it at the time fall to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk just seconds away from being on the bridge himself, witnesses the event in horror, and begins to ask questions that no one can answer. Why did he arrive a few moments later? Why did those five people die? Was it a coincidence, or did God himself choose that the bridge should break, and choose which people should die?

Brother Juniper begins an investigation into the backgrounds of each person, and the book is divided into parts with their stories. The first individual is María, Marquesa de Montemayor, a woman whose passionate love for her daughter eventually drives her away as she seeks independence. María writes essay-like, eloquent letters to her daughter, in which Wilder's simplistically delicate prose became a bit heavier, a bit more ornate, to fit the voice of his character.
Also traveling with her is a servant girl, perhaps an attempted replacement for her daughter.

The second part is about Esteban, whose story involved his twin and a secret invented language, all fractured when one of them falls in love. It was a dramatic story made completely believable.

Lastly is the story of Pio and Jamie. Pio, a well traveled man with an eclectic past, takes a little girl singing in a coffee shop under his wing, and over the years, she develops under his guidance into a beautiful, famed actress. Pio watches her ascent and descent, and one day persuades her to let him teach her son, Jamie, as he taught her. They leave for Lima and are on the bridge when it falls.

The way that Wilder gives us glimpses into these character's lives, in a short story sort of writing style, was lovely. He chronicles both commonplace and extraordinary events, and with each twist, we see their stories heading steadily toward the bridge where they will die. I hadn't been expecting Wilder to remind me so strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the types of stories that he told were very similar.

I don't normally say this, but I liked the quiet spirituality of this book. Rather than blindly refuse to ask questions of God, Brother Juniper devotes himself to doing so. He never seems to actually question his faith, but rather asks questions about it, seeking understanding. He approaches things philosophically and inquisitively.

Following the September 11th attacks, Tony Blair read the last sentences of this book in New York:

"...But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning."

This little book was subtle, insightful, and pretty. Few books can searchingly approach the topic of death in a such a meaningful way, but this one did.