Book 86: The Bridge of San Luis Rey



"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 single feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God."

Dates read: September 4-6, 2016

Rating: 6/10

Lists/Awards: Pulitzer Prize, Time All-Time 100 Novels

Life isn't fair. It's a lesson our parents start trying to teach us young, usually, but it takes a long time to really stick. Sometimes good things happen to bad people for no reason, and the reverse is even more infuriatingly true. Someone who could have helped cure cancer was probably shot somewhere today and there's nothing we can do about it. Why? Just because. Same reason these kind of things happen all the time.

It might sound bleak, but this kind of thinking actually makes me feel better when bad things happen. It's nothing personal, it's just the way things are. But to Brother Juniper in Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, that explanation isn't good enough. Brother Juniper is a monk, and in his eyes, people die for a reason. So when five people fall to their deaths when a Peruvian bridge collapses, he gathers their stories to try to puzzle out why.

The five are are an older woman estranged from her beloved daughter, that woman's young helpmeet, a young man mourning the loss of his identical twin brother, a stage manager who made an actress famous, and the actress' son. It's a brief little novella, but it's actually more a series of interconnected short stories than anything else. There are four stories going on: the story of the fall of the bridge and its effect on the local populace, the story of the woman and her companion, the story of the twin, and the story of the manager and the actress' son. The people on the bridge, far from being sinners cast down by a vengeful deity, were for the most part flawed but fundamentally good people who had experienced sorrow but were about to make a turn into happiness. What divine justice is there in that?

Even Brother Juniper can't see any. But while the mysteries of life and death may not be revealed by the story of those who perished with the bridge, what really comes through in these stories is love. The love of a parent for her child, the affection between companions, the love of siblings, romantic love, unrequited love...it actually reminds me of Love, Actually (which I know some people wish would vanish entirely from the earth, and definitely has issues, but I attach a lot of sentimental value to) in the way that it highlights the bonds between people. At the end, it's love that moves us, no matter what form that love takes.

This is a small book with a big reputation, and I...didn't really get the hype? Yes, it was good and surprisingly thought-provoking considering its length, but I wouldn't have identified it as a literary classic if I didn't already know it was exactly that going in, if you know what I mean. It was definitely a quality piece of writing, but it wasn't...special. I would be willing to bet that within a year I will have forgotten that I ever read it but for the recordation of it on this here blog. But it is a classic, so it's apparently been very meaningful to some people and it's definitely an enjoyable, quick read.

Tell me, blog friends...to look at the other side of the coin here, is there a novel that you think should be a classic that you can't understand why it's not?

One year ago, I was reading: The White Queen

2 comments

  1. You're a better person than I am. I tried to read the book and couldn't finish it. Maybe it was because I could see it wasn't going to say what I wanted it to say.

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    1. I refuse to DNF, which is really much less a virtue than a profound stubbornness that means I invest time and energy in books that don't deserve it. I think I just kept reading because it was so short so I kept waiting for it to get good to earn its reputation and it just didn't.

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