January’s book club selection was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. As a lover of Our Town and fellow Wisconsinite, I’ve had this book on my TBR pile forever. Well, maybe not forever, but certainly since high school, which is way closer to forever than I want to admit. What’s the 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning novel all about?
~ The Blurb ~
On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below. With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.
~ My Review ~
While this novel started out as a fast read, I quickly got bogged down in the details. The characters – The Marquesa, the Perichole, Manuel and Esteban, Uncle Pio –all seemed like types rather than flesh and blood characters. A mother, a young girl, the embodiment of evil … all stereotypical types, not persons who came alive on the pages.
There is also more than a touch of sentimentality to Wilder’s work. The Marquesa (aka the Mother) is the embodiment of this. She writes letters to her daughter who has fled to Spain to escape her mother. The letters, although the reader only gets glimpses of them, are sentimental to the point of embarrassing her daughter.
If I were to merely look at the various lives discussed during the bulk of the novel, I would declare the novel sentimental and move on. There’s more here, however. Brother Juniper uses the collapse of the bridge as a jumping point for to investigate why someone dies. Is there a reason behind death? Do some deserve death more than others? For his efforts, he is burned as a heretic. As a reader, I couldn’t help but investigate the lives lost at the bridge and wonder the same things the Brother did.
The novel is full of writing that takes one’s breath away. The novel ends with a monologue by the Abbess who struggles to understand the meaning of life. It is in this monologue that we discover the depth of Wilder’s writing abilities: