The Bridge of San Luis Rey doesn't have a plot so much as a heart. There are plots, and they do intertwine (the book is essentially three long short stories set within a larger story), but what Thornton Wilder is concerned with isn't a narrative—it's a way of being. If he reveals that a little too explicitly on the last page, it's a sin easily forgiven because the road there is so beautiful.
There are actually concentric rings of stories here. The broadest ring: a well-trafficked bridge in early-18th century Peru collapses with five people on it and they all die. The middle ring: Brother Juniper, a monk, decides to investigate the lives of these victims in an attempt to scientifically prove God's existence by showing that their deaths were the work of Providence. The inner ring: the biographies of these victims presumably as compiled by Brother Juniper for inclusion in his book.
Each circle interprets and is interpreted by the others. Wilder draws everything together gradually, sewing the various tatters of his project into a unified fabric so skillfully most readers won't even be able to tell he's doing it. This is partly because he's a master of pacing, and partly because he is to language what Isaac Newton was to calculus and the theory of gravity.
Yet Wilder is himself somewhat dismissive of style. In fact, he says so directly in a discussion of the purpose of literature (which is "the notation of the heart"): "Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world." Almost every sentence in this book is like that: simple, but deeply poetic. It's a beautiful book to read on all levels, but especially in terms of Wilder's style.
The three biographies of Brother Juniper (two of the five victims were merely accompanying their masters) are pretty melancholy and dark. One is about an old woman who wrote beautiful letters to a daughter who never loved her; another concerns a ship captain who's already lost everyone that matters; and the last describes a man broken by love. How these three stories are actually more like one story is one evidence of Wilder's mastery of prose fiction.
This isn't a well-known book today, but it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 amidst global acclaim. It deserves to be rediscovered. Few books are as profound and as aesthetically flawless. It's also very short, so before you do anything else get a copy and read it. If you're disappointed, you're probably exactly the person who needs to hear Wilder's timeless message.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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