"The Bridge of San Luis Rey"

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below."

That's the opening line of this 1928 Pulitzer Prize winner, which tackles no less a subject than the meaning of human existence. Wilder said he wanted the book to ask: "Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?" The way he asks it, and seeks the answer, makes this one of the better, and most interesting, books I've come across in a while.

 The breaking of the bridge was witnessed by one Brother Juniper, a Franciscan from Italy who was coincidentally (?)  in Lima at the time converting the natives. Brother Juniper was convinced that if he examined the lives of the victims closely enough, he could show why the tragedy happened to those particular five people, why it was they who happened to be walking over the bridge at the exact moment it failed after holding strong for over a hundred years. Was is simply accident, or was there intention in it, a will greater than human?

These are the five victims:

 - The Marquesa de Montemayer, a wealthy, elderly woman whose eccentric behavior has incurred the ridicule of the townspeople and left her to live a lonely existence among the servants in her big, beautiful house. 

- Pepita, an orphan girl sent to be a companion to the Marquesa and considered by the Sister who runs the orphanage to be a child of unusual potential.

- Esteban, a serious young man who grew up in the same orphanage as Pepita with his twin brother, Manuel.

- Uncle Pio, a con man known around the world, who has been paid by theaters to applaud performances and by governments to incite riots. He has seen and done it all but is now reduced to managing the career of an actress with whom he is hopelessly besotted and whom he cannot leave.

- Jaime, the young son of Pio's beloved actress, but not his son.

Wilder brings these five characters to life, and a few others whose stories overlap and impact them, within a mere 90 pages. It's impressive how vividly the characters are drawn and how much understanding of them the reader gets in so short a story. It left me feeling I'd read a much bigger book.

He tells each character's story then pulls them all together toward that fatal, seemingly inevitable, moment when they stand together on the doomed bridge. The climax of the story told in the opening line is not something I've seen before, but it works in this novel. What happens after that to Brother Juniper and his research is another whole story though it is told in summary fashion and not with the same detail as the others. 

The author's ability to develop rich characters and his keen understanding of human nature and the complexities of human life will have me tracking down the rest of his books. He has a lot to say and I want to hear it, or maybe it's more that he has a lot of questions and I want to see where he goes with them. At any rate, he writes a darn good story and I want more.

The surprising thing about this book's age is that it makes no difference at all. It could have been written yesterday. The questions raised, and the observations made, are every bit as relevant today as they were eighty-five years ago, and they always will be. This is a truly timeless book. I thought it was amazing.  

2 comments:

juleschka said...

I completely agree with you. It already has been some time since I read this book, but I remember it fondly. Mr. Wilder is an excelent writer, which made it very easy to engulf myself in his work. Nice choice for a review. I'm looking forward to reading your opinion on other works of him :)

Ordinary Reader said...

juleschka...His writing is quite a pleasure to read isn't it? I'm thinking about Theophilus North next. Thanks for stopping by.

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