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The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Perennial Classics) Paperback – April 15, 2003
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Few novels identify their basic plotline as succinctly and forthrightly as the opening line of Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.” The novel’s conceit is this: a certain Brother Juniper was himself about to step out onto the bridge when it broke and subsequently witnessed the plunge of five people into the abyss below. Brother Juniper wonders if the tragedy happened according to a divine plan or was simply a random instance of misfortune. His curiosity leads him to investigate the lives of the five victims to prove that the bridge collapse and the resulting deaths were indeed divine intervention—that God intended for them to die then and there. But, of course, the point of the novel is that there is no commonality among them, other than the fact that they are all simply human, with their own frailties. Wilder ends his at-once urgent and serene novel with this haunting passage: “But soon we shall die and all memory of these five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” --Brad Hooper --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A glorious thing -- David Mitchell --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Juniper's conclusions are, of course, inconclusive. He never found the pattern, but remained convinced that it was there, just that he was too poor an intellect to see it. Such questions, naturally, were anathema to the church of the age and Juniper and his book were destroyed for heresy. Readers who focus on the same questions as Juniper are doomed to be just as frustrated. Wilder is far too insightful to let Juniper have the last word, for ultimately, it is not Juniper who stumbles upon the meaning of the five deaths, but the survivors -those who loved the victims- as well as the reader. What the five had in common was that they were human beings, with tender sides and flaws and significant unrequited loves. There is nothing remarkable here, we are all built that way. After their deaths, the Abbess whose orphanage was home to two of the victims realizes that the meaning lies in the lives themselves, in the love the victims shared with those near to them. That there is no immortality, not even memory or good works, so that what matters is the fleeting existence of goodness, and therein lies god's grace. Love is a powerful and immediate force, not a point for theological debate. "Many who have spent a lifetime in passion can tell us less of love than the child that lost a dog yesterday."
Wilder's prose is smooth and polished and yielding of aphorisms: the six attributes of the adventurer (a memory for names and faces, the gift of tongues, inexhaustible invention, secrecy, a talent for chatting with strangers, and a freedom from conscience); or an observation that "the public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth." Every line is adept, every page a wonder.
While Wilder wrote the book in 1927, it is perhaps a perfect inquiry into 17th century baroque worldviews and the rationalist philosophies they spawned. The baroque had reached Spain, if not Peru, by 1714. Its fascination with death and the brevity of life ("carpe diem" and countless reminders of the inevitabiity of death) resound her, as do its emphasis on vanity, and theater as a metaphor for life. Lima's theatre, its actresses and audiences, are central to the book. And it is only when the beautiful actress is struck by tragedies that she reaches her resolution in grace. Juniper himself embodies that strange blend of baroque scientific materialism and divine idealism of an age in which Descartes could prove the existence of god while Newton demonstrated god's machinery in motion.
Wilder's solution is much more satisfying than Descartes' or Juniper's. Wilder may have been baroque in his cynicism, but he was decidedly 20th century american in his hopefulness. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is a stunning book.
The manifest story is simple. Five people have fallen to their death in Peru, and Brother Juniper seeks to prove the goodness of God by evaluating their lives to demonstrate exactly why bad things happen. Gently satirical, Wilder consigns poor Brother Juniper to a fitting end, for the chutzpah of attempting to decipher the mind of God with a moral calculus. Juniper has forgotten his Master's admonition, to "judge not." Hidden from Juniper's attempt to make sense of tragedy lay connections that he could never imagine, longings, love unrequited, and loneliness unimaginable. In the end, we learn, not WHY bad things happen, but the power and beauty that can rise from the ashes of tragedy.
Wilder tells snippets of stories, weaving lives together, in a way that goes unnoticed at first, then becomes subliminal, and finally explodes into consciousness at the end. While these lives and their interconnections are somewhat contrived, they effect a transformation, both of the story-line and the reader by the end of the book. Well worth reading a second time.<P...
The character studies that make up the bulk of the novel (which is really more of a novella given its brevity) are uniformly intriguing, and it is there that "Bridge" truly shines, in addition to Wilder's superb use of language. His portrait of the Marquesa, her servant Pepita, Esteban and his twin brother Manuel, and the Perichole are awe-inspiring glimpses into lives that feel full and true to life - an even greater achievement considering the short amount of time Wilder spends on each of them in order to move the plot forward. If it is more difficult to get a handle on other characters like the Archbishop, the viceroy, Jaime, and the enigmatic Uncle Pio we can forgive Wilder because they still fit the larger scheme of the novel and add to its compelling plot. What emerges from their intertwining lives is the realization that human lives are often too complex to be accurately affixed with such extreme labels as `good' or `bad'. Each has marks for them and against them, making an experiment like Brother Juniper's impossible to complete. There are too many shades of grey to see things as black and white as the missionary would like them to be.
In addition to this main theme, Wilder expertly weaves in questions regarding love, family, and faith. And while I greatly appreciate his refusal to come to any definite answer, one does wish that Wilder had put more into his presentation. In his exploration of this tragic event and its implications he does little more than present evidence for the reader to interpret as they see fit, and the problem there is that they will come away with whatever preconceived notions they may have had regarding the subject perfectly intact. Wilder brings no new insights to the central question and he makes no poignant arguments for either side. "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" is, then, essentially a test case for the reader to apply their own theories to. There will be no earth-shattering revelations to make them reconsider their position, and as good as the novel is in all other respects, I wish that the debate as Wilder presented it had more meat. It certainly isn't lacking in substance, but just a touch more flavor would have been greatly appreciated.
Still, I would highly recommend this book to any lover of literature and anyone who is trying to find their own answers to the question it poses. Wilder's novel takes on additional significance in the wake of 9/11 that makes it even more relevant to modern readers. To read that "The bridge seemed to be among the things that last forever; it was unthinkable that it should break" is to revisit the stunned disbelief that has permeated the years since that tragedy.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I listened to it on audiobook and it's really short, only about 3 hours I think.Read more