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Friday, November 15, 2013

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Book Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I was given this book by an old friend, who is very much in the habit of giving me books, especially if it might give her an excuse to trap me in an annoyingly philosophical conversation about the nature of the human condition—a subject that has surely been tired by the likes of us since our colleges days. So on the occasion that I happen to have the time to sit down and read all the books my dear friend has actually given me, I’m afraid I’ll be lost for years in a contradictory state of spiritual confusion.

But upon receiving The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I had no idea that it was written in the 1920s or that it’s considered a “perennial fiction classic,” (whatever that means), or even that it was adapted into a Robert Dinero movie in 2004 that nobody saw. I read the book because it’s short and I just so happen to have an ardent fondness for bridges. And who doesn’t? They’re quite lovely.

In the very first sentence of the novel, we are informed that the “finest bridge in all Peru” has just collapsed, sending five travelers plummeting to their deaths. It’s 1719, so naturally, a Franciscan missionary named Brother Juniper takes it upon himself to prove that these seemingly tragic deaths aren’t really tragic at all, but the work of God, to prove to the disbelievers that there is a divine purpose. Already I wish this self-righteous nut had died instead, and to my immense gratitude, the narrator proceeds to promise us that Brother Juniper’s quest will eventually lead to his death as well.

In five parts, Wilder takes us through the lives of each victim.

  • The Marquesa de Montemayor, a fanatical mother who spends her entire life trying to win the affection of her only daughter—a self-proclaimed pursuit which inherently leads to it’s ultimate suffocating failure.
  • Pepita, the lonely devoted orphan who the Marquesa has adopted.
  • Esteban, a young man who is trying to find his way after the death of his identical twin brother.
  • My personal favorite, Uncle Pio, an adventurous yet disconnected harlequin with a taste for art and a propensity for secrecy.
  • And Jaime, the child of the one person Uncle Pio may have loved (even if she could only love herself).
What interests me most is that Wilder wrote the novel in his late twenties, no doubt plagued by the same question that tends to haunt most modern day 20-somethings (or at least the ones smoking pot)—Is there a purpose to our lives that transcends our individual will? So, you know, classically deep stuff. And of course, by the end of the novel, I found myself forgiving Brother Juniper for asking this question as well.

But I’m actually quite impressed—not because I think there’s a moral here that ought to be learned—but because there are very few stories in which the author gives away his plot in the first sentence, promises death to all of his characters, and still manages to keep you reading and rooting for them. (Another similar novel that comes to mind is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold.) Wilder so eloquently paints a wild picture of such complex, engaging, and human individuals that the reader comes to discover that each character is, in fact, a story in itself. This book is, above all, about people. A
nd so if you, like me, relish most in a story’s characters (more so even than it’s plot), then read this book…even if you only mildly dabble in the nature of the human condition. 

An incredible testament to the human heart and the things it can survive, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of those books that makes you look into the eyes of the woman behind the cash register the next time you’re at the grocery store and sincerely inquire about the state of her day.

At the very least, I’m bringing back old books for this week—“perennial” if you will—because we all need to be reminded that every generation enjoys a story that demands the humbling of a religious man with an agenda.

Have you read The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Click on the forum to discuss!

Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Author: Thorton Wilder  

Genre: Literature, Fiction  

Recommendation:  Yes  

Best Reader Audience: 20-somethings  

Final Rating: I give this book 5 out 5 somethings.

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