The Short Version: A bridge in Peru breaks, sending the five people on it to their deaths. A friar who witnessed the accident decides to explore those five lives and delivers a picture of who these people were, who came to such an untimely and unexpected end.
The Review: I have a curious relationship with the works of Thornton Wilder that I’d like to explain before I dive into reviewing this book. Yes, I (like most of you) read Our Town in high school. I performed in it, too, as the Stage Manager and it remains one of my all-time favorite plays – and David Cromer’s 2009 production remains one of the best theatergoing experiences I’ve ever had. But despite my love for the man’s work, I had no idea that Wilder wrote novels until only a few years ago.
All that changed when I started working for Jeremy McCarter at The Public. We did a Public Forum Drama Club of Wilder’s short play, “The Long Christmas Dinner”, with Wilder’s nephew and literary executor Tappan – and suddenly I had this opening into a world I hardly knew existed. Jeremy told me that The Bridge of San Luis Rey might be his favorite novel – and after three years of spending a lovely December day with Tappan and this play (not to mention the serendipitous release of an Olive Edition of the book), I decided it was time to see more of who Wilder was as a writer.
Those familiar with Our Town will of course see some of the same preoccupations here: the details of everyday lives, a consideration of human will and the possibility of a will of God, questioning of why the good often die when the bad survive, and so on. Keen readers will notice Wilder’s thrilling restlessness too, in the novel’s different sections. This is not a straightforward novel but rather a collection of lives told as not-quite-short-stories, creating a picture of a moment in time as opposed to a more traditional narrative. Certainly the bounds of the novel’s form had been burst at this point – Joyce, Woolf, and the like were all already publishing by the time this novel rolls around – but there is something equally exciting about the way Wilder is messing with structure and form here. It’s almost as though this is a work of historical record – except it is a work of near-total fiction (a trick Wilder will return to in The Ides of March).
It’s an oddly slight novel. Each character gets only a handful of pages before they’re shuffled off, onto the collapsing bridge – and the action of the novel, the collapse of the bridge of San Luis Rey, occurs in the first sentence. We meet a wealthy and unhappy woman (the Marquesa de Montemayor), a twin whose life is upended at the death of his brother (Esteban), and a jack-of-all-trades who helps discover Peru’s greatest actress (Uncle Pio) – and the time spent with them is just enough to make us care about them before their lives are dispatched in the collapse of the bridge. It’s even more jarring to know that the Marquesa and Uncle Pio had young people with them on the bridge (the two remaining deaths) – lives that, perhaps, weren’t even yet set in their mold to the point of having a story to tell.
It’s here that Wilder’s writing and work hits most potently. These characters, whose lives are told to us in casual easy tones, become just real enough that their deaths affect the reader. We aren’t gutted by their loss or anything extraordinary – but we’re given enough knowledge of their lives that we can’t help but feeling their absence. The final section of the book, recounting both the work of Brother Juniper (the monk supposedly gathering these stories) and his death as well as a return to the stories of some who survived (the Abbess, La Perichole, Doña Clara), is a meditation on losses of all kinds and I had to read it twice to fully grasp its weight – because, at first, it seems like the slightest of conclusions, like one written to tap the heartstrings but not leave a lasting mental impact. Upon second reading, however, it’s clear that Wilder wants the reader to go deeper and consider, for themselves, what it means to not only live in this world but to love and what it means to love those who’ve left us. The famous closing line of the book – “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning” – is far weightier than nearly anything that has come before it (another trick Wilder deploys throughout his career, dropping a sentence or two of nearly-unbearable knowledge near the conclusion that puts everything that came before into heart-swelling context) and it can’t help but propel the reader out into their own mind to ponder for a time whether or not they agree.
Rating: 4 out of 5. At first, when I put it down, I thought it surprisingly slight and not as important as I’d hoped it would be – but it has grown into those hopes and expectations the longer I’ve thought about it. More than anything, I think the book displays Wilder’s immense talents as a prose stylist and thinker: he manages to get you caring about people you’ve never heard of – and he makes you care exactly the right amount so that his lesson will strike home once they’re taken away from you. This is not playing with the reader’s emotions but instead knowing how one’s emotions will influence the reading and comprehension of a story. I look forward to reading more Wilder – because his worth extends, clearly, far beyond the wonders of Our Town.