Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

When I picked up this book to read, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was written by Thornton Wilder (a big draw for me) and it was a novel that won a Pulitzer Prize. (Must be good, right?)

The novel is told in a very unique way. Wilder set it in the aftermath of the tragic collapse of the Bridge of San Luis Rey in Lima, Peru, in which five people died. The question the author considers is: Why those people? Is it mere chance, or does God have a reason for who lives and who dies?

Well, Thornton Wilder focuses on three of the people that died, (the other two were companions that were included in their stories.) He tells of their lives, their loves, their faults, their innermost passions. It was so forcefully and "factually" rendered that I found myself thinking that I really must look up these people and this bridge to find out what else has been written about them. I had to laugh in amazement at Wilder's skill in storytelling as I reminded myself that this story was a novel, entirely created in his own mind.

By the end of the story, Wilder makes no concrete assertions, but as a reader, I saw reason behind the tragedy--but not necessarily in the way I expected.

One lady who died was a member of the aristocracy. She was an old woman who struggled with drunkenness and a consuming passion to prove to herself that her daughter (across the sea in Spain) really loves her. This drives her entire life and leads her to write letters that would eventually become famous throughout Peru, standard fare for school children to study. The day before she and her hand maiden cross the bridge on their journey home from a pilgrimage, she releases her claim on her daughter's affection and acknowledges that God has his own power and purposes that his is not obliged to confide to us.

A young man, Esteban, also died, only in his early twenties. He had grown up with his twin brother, with whom he shared his whole life, mostly in silence, but sometimes they spoke to each other in a secret language that they had created. Several weeks before the bridge collapsed, Esteban's twin was badly injured and died. Without his twin, Esteban, aimlessly roamed the town, unwilling to go into the house where he had lived with his brother. He fled all who tried to help until he met the captain of a ship, and old acquaintance that the twins had worked for in the past. Esteban was on the brink of suicide when the captain convinced him to come work on his ship. The next day they set out on their journey. When the captain took the lower route to look after supplies, Esteben took the bridge.

The other man who died was an artisan in every sense of the word. His story was both about himself (Uncle Pio) and the girl that he adopted and trained to be the finest actress in the whole Spanish world (called the Perichole). They were family to each other until she grew older and turned her back on the theater. She wanted to be a "lady" and in that pursuit, she rejected her old mentor as well. This essentially breaks his heart, and he promises to leave her completely alone if only she will let him take her oldest son (a very sickly boy) and train him in the ways of a gentleman. Though Uncle Pio was no gentleman himself, he was a master at all forms of appearance, and he was very well connected. The Perichole finally gave in, and as the son was agreeable to the arrangement, the two of them left the next day--over the bridge.

Now this would be a very sad story, full of interrupted and unresolved relationships if it were merely about the deaths of these five. But the story continues and we see three ladies come together in love for those that they lost. The old lady's daughter, the Perichole, and the abbess who raised Esteban and his brother all find each other to sympathize with their losses. Together, for love of the dead, they work to help the living. At first glance, one might think this book is evidence of Wilder's morbid fixation on death. But no, it is all about the qualities of love, which Wilder describes as the bridge between the world of the dead and the living.