In case you noticed, it has been over a week since my last Book a Day post. That is because I took a week off to renovate the school room. Since the school room is part of the dining room and kitchen, at the heart of our home, I thought it would be best to gut it all at once and then work like mad and have it back online in seven days. It worked, but I had to basically go on break from everything else in life, including laundry and reading.
Unfortunately, I stopped right on a book that was hard for to me to finish, so getting back up to speed was an effort. At any rate…
I was really surprised at the book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder. It won a Pulitzer. It was written by one of the great American writers (Thornton Wilder, who eventually become more prolific with his plays than his novels, but okay). It was given to me and my husband after 9/11, when people were turning to the book for answers in the face of tragedy. And the voice is very deep, beautiful prose. So why have I had such a hard time with it?
Furthermore, it sounds almost like something that Gabriel Garcia Marquez could have written, and I love Garcia Marquez. (I read somewhere that Garcia Marquez had read Wilder before writing at least some of his stuff. Personally, I think he was influenced, but managed to lighten–while maintaining some denseness–and refine the technique.) It was so South American in style that I had forgotten it was written by an American. It just feels Peruvian, right down to the bones.
I find one of the key words in the paragraph I just wrote. This book is dense. It is also subtle. And frequently the denseness and subtlety collide and you wonder where you are and what just happened. (I mean this literally. You ask, “Was that two weeks or two years right there?” or “Did she say that aloud?” or “Am I still reading about the Perichole? and what the heck is a perichole?“) So while the language may be fairly beautiful, it is not very clear.
I also found that while I think that the idea and literary approach to the subject are interesting (not to mention ahead of their time), I found the execution a bit dull. Here’s the idea: a bridge collapses and five people die. A monk is disturbed by the event and turns all of his efforts to riddle out why it was those five people who perished. The bulk of the book is divided into three sections (flanked by the bits about the monk), which concentrate on three of the five people, while also scooping up the other two into them. The characters’ sections end up bleeding into one another, as the stories in them weave unexpectedly together. I love this idea, but…
Not to mention that the book is just plain bleak. Its reading of humanity is, I suppose, probing and real, but it is also so negative. Looking over the things I underlined, this is none too plain.
It felt historical (and some of it is based on historical people), which is another way to say that it didn’t read like a novel. While there were aspects of drama in the story, they were not presented in a very dramatic fashion, and dialogue, etc. were kept at a minimum, since the story was being recounted as history. While this works as a gimmick, I found that it dampened the story. I wasn’t swept up into anything, at all. My imagination did no running.
I still don’t know what to make of this book, after many years of it being on my shelf. I don’t love it. But I don’t want to write it off, either. I’m afraid to criticize it, but I find it has its faults. What are its good qualities? Nice prose. An interesting set-up. Memorable characters (whom I found distasteful). Thoughtfulness. Innovation. And the recommendation of many other people and critics.
I am not going to discourage you from reading it, but I think that when I return to Wilder I will try out Our Town and The Eighth Day.
I have not watched the movie, although I almost did.
“…the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world” (p17).
“…though her love for her daughter was vast enough to include all the colors of love, it was not without a shade of tyranny” (p18).
“But soon a belief in the great Perhaps would surge up from the depths of her nature and she would fairly run home to renew the candles above her daughter’s bed” (p35).
“She had never brought courage to either life or love. Her eyes ransacked her heart” (p41).
“Pleasure was no longer as simple as eating; it was being complicated by love” (p49).
“…many people would not have fallen in love if they had not heard about it” (p50)
“…if it can be said we ever sacrifice anything save what we know we can never attain, or what some secret wisdom tells us it would be uncomfortable or saddening to posses” P55).
“‘We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes” (p71).
“He had read all the literary of antiquity and forgotten all about it except a general aroma of charm and disillusion” (p91).
“…whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death…” (p93).
“Even the busiest mother stands for a moment idle-handed smiling at her dear and exasperating family” (p98)
“There is no such thing as that kind of love and that kind of island. It is only the theater you find such things” (p100).
“Such love, though it expends itself in generosity and thoughtfulness, though it give birth to visions and to great poetry, remains among the sharpest expressions of self-interest” (102).