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Book #45: The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

I might have said everything about this novel that can be said.

For a book that’s just slightly more than 100 pages, this little novel gives you a lot to think about. It’s really incredible what Thornton Wilder does with The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. At the risk of sounding cliché-ish, this one’s a masterpiece.

The premise, as I’ve mentioned many times over the last few weeks, is simply this: A rope bridge in Peru collapses, killing five people. After this tragedy, a Franciscan monk named Brother Juniper, who witnesses the event, decides to try and make some cosmic sense of it all.

He researches the lives of each victim, tells their stories, and attempts to understand why they died. The overarching question for Brother Juniper is “Why does bad crap happen?” As expected, he finds the answer to this question isn’t black and white.

There’s a fuzzy, grey area in which this novel takes up residency and hangs out. If you’re looking for a clear cut, magic bean answer to why tragedy happens, then you won’t find it here.

But that shouldn’t detract you from reading what is a beautiful story. Sadly, with epic tragedies like September 11 and the Aurora shooting becoming more frequent, this novel is as relevant as ever.

As I mentioned in my post about the Aurora tragedy last week, the novel reminds us about the humanity of the victims.

In our culture, a bridge collapses, a building falls, a crazy man goes on a rampage, and we tend to look for someone to blame: “Who inspected this bridge? This building? Who bullied and picked on this man to make him kill 12 people?”

Those aren’t questions to ignore, as they hopefully help us prevent similar events in the future, but they take the focus off the victims where it should be. And sometimes, crazy crap just happens. There is no explanation.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey puts the spotlight on 5 people, 5 lives that were lost when they fell from a rope bridge over a river in Peru.

The five main characters are the Marquesa de Montemayor, Pepita, Esteban, Uncle Pio, and young Jaime, each of whom has a reason to be traveling across that bridge on that fateful day. But Juniper talks very little about the bridge collapse itself. He focuses on each character’s story and what led them to the bridge.

If you’ve ever watched a film or read a book that walks you through the lives of different characters—who don’t know each other—and brings them together at the end, then you’ve seen a film or movie that followed the template of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Wilder was one of the first, if not the first author, who used that technique.

In 100 pages, Thornton Wilder does what very few earth-born humans could do this side of George Orwell. He writes a profound, rich story filled with drama and heartbreak in relatively few words. He spares the fluff and gets to the point.

Wilder’s inspiration came from Luke 13:4 in the Bible: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

So, no mistake, this is a novel filled with theological questions. More than that, it’s a novel filled with questions about life and death.

It all comes down to one question: Why does random bad crap happen? Russell Banks says it this way in the foreword:

“One merely has to consider the central question raised by the novel, which, according to Wilder himself, was simply: ‘Is there a direction and meaning in the lives beyond the individual’s own will?’ It is perhaps the largest and most profoundly personal philosophical inquiry that we can undertake. It is the question that defines us as human beings.'”

And Brother Juniper discusses it in the first chapter of the book:

“Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”

Ah, such a rich paragraph.

Thornton Wilder (Image: Public Domain)

Style-wise, it’s such an interesting counter to An American Tragedy—a book I loved, but a book that takes 10 times longer to get from point A to point B than The Bridge.

The styles of Wilder and Dreiser could not be more different, but isn’t that the beauty of reading from a list like this?

I honestly don’t know what to expect from book to book. I might get a case of literary whiplash from reading books like Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Neuromancer, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey—all from the same list.

To sum up, I love this novel. I feel like I need to read it again to really soak it in. I’ll get around to that someday.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and read The Bridge Of San Luis Rey.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.”

The Meaning: A bridge falls. People die. A man asks the question, “Why?” Is there some kind of divine reason for seemingly random tragedy?

Highlights: This novel is short and sweet and superbly written. Wilder wastes no space in telling a fabulous story with rich, well-crafted characters in just more than 100 pages.

Lowlights: The question of “Why?” is never really answered. But, really, that’s to be expected. Some readers may be disappointed that Wilder doesn’t give a black and white answer, but the journey of discovery these characters take is the main focus here.

Memorable Line: Soon we shall die and all memory of those 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.”

Final Thoughts: The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a simple novel and a complex novel at the same time. You can take it as deep as you want to go. It is both a detailed look at the lives of 5 people who fall to an untimely death and rich study of theology, philosophy, and the matter of tragedy.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Erik S. #

    Robert, I think the book seemed to focus more on love than entertaining the question of why bad things happen. Doesn’t love play a central piece to each character’s story? I thought the story asked many questions about love–what is it really? How do I give it and receive it? When is it authentic and not contrived or self-serving? Wilder even ended on this subject–in the last four sentences of the book (that you quoted above), he mentions love six times. I was distracted by Brother Juniper’s search at first, thinking this was the point of Wilder’s book. But when I reflect on it, I think he used that question as merely an entry point. Ultimately, Juniper’s search and the reason for his death were all motivated by love, either the pursuit or protection of it in some form or another. What do you think?


    August 1, 2012
    • I think that’s valid. I can definitely see that. As you say, the novel ends with a passage about love. I think the question of free will and tragedy are still key to The Bridge, as Russell Banks mentions in his foreword…love being the glue, or “the bridge,” that fills in that uncertainty.


      August 1, 2012
  2. Teresa #

    Agreed — A great book. Great review, too.


    August 1, 2012
  3. Yay! It’s currently in your Top Ten! 😀 But there’s more than 50 books left. I hope it stays there.


    August 2, 2012

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