Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (89 down, 11 to go)

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

What a charming little tale – though I almost feel ghoulish for saying so. It involves a bridge collapse and the death of five souls, and the execution by burning of the monk who chronicled their lives…

And yet, it still comes out as charming. Not without some grim reading first though. This little book grew on me slowly. I knew nothing of the plot and thought perhaps it was some sort of adventure or military tale.

Nope. It is the story of an ancient Incan bridge, in Peru that collapses in 1714, five souls who perish, and the Franciscan monk who witnesses the tragedy.  
Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off.
Brother Juniper was apparently obsessed with how divine providence selects souls to be affected by such events. Once before, he had devised a mathematical formula attempting to put a value of the worth of souls that had perished in a different tragedy, but as you might guess, he found little to satisfy his passion.
He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven. He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city.
But Brother Juniper again tries to find reason in the circumstance and spends six years researching the lives that were lost. I could try to synopsize their tales, but what stood out was Brother Juniper’s devotion. I think Brother Juniper loved humanity. In the end, he writes a book about the five and expostulates his premise on the mysteries of providence. The book and author are burned for heresy. Brother Juniper approaches his earthly judgment calmly.
He was willing to lay down his life for the purity of the church, but he longed for one voice somewhere to testify for him that his intention, at least, had been for faith; he thought there was no one in the world who believed him. But the next morning in all that crowd and sunlight there were many who believed, for he was much loved.
Brother Juniper, in his devoted and tender way, focused on the souls who were lost, but the narration then turns to the survivors – those whose lives had been touched by the victims – and oh then – there lies the charm.

One such survivor comments:
“Now learn,” she commanded herself, “learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace.” 
Oh and, one copy of Brother Juniper's book is spared; it mostly collects dust in a university library.

I have hinted before that I care more about a great story than for polished writing. Thornton Wilder however, accomplishes both. His prose is nearly poetry and was a pleasure to read. The excerpts below, even without their context, are offered as evidence.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 and was the best selling-work of fiction that year. At a bit over 30,000 words it is considered a novella, and I believe the shortest work on my 100 Greatest Novels list.

This is the first time I’ve read The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I've read a bit of Wilder, long ago reading bits of Our TownHave you read this novel? this author? What did you think?


“I may see you Tuesday,” says a Limean, “unless the bridge falls.”

Doña Clara was in the hand of malignant Nature who reserves the right to inflict upon her children the most terrifying jests.

…but the servant loved the master because he could quote from any of Cervantes’ prefaces and because his tongue had a little Castilian salt about it still.

…his passion for overseeing the lives of others, his worship of beautiful women, and his admiration for the treasures of Spanish literature.

But there arose out of this denial itself the perfume of a tenderness, that ghost of passion which, in the most unexpected relationship, can make even a whole lifetime devoted to irksome duty pass like a gracious dream.

She had a new way of fingering a wine-glass, of exchanging an adieu, a new way of entering a door that told everything.

All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul. They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news. They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries. Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men.


  1. Sounds like a lovely book in spite of the theme. I have never heard of it, but Will see if I can find it. A big achievement to read all the 100 books on the list. Well done.

    1. If you like bittersweet, you may like it. (I haven't quite finished all 100 yet...working on #90 now)

  2. I read this book a few years ago now & I had to reread my post about to it recall how I felt ( I had a mostly love but with a few qualifications opinion of it. Despite its beauty the emotion was somehow missing for me.

    1. The beauty of literature, yes? An author speaks powerfully to one, and to another not so much. I'll check out your comments now. Thanks for the feedback Brona. :)

  3. This is another one of those books that I read in high school and never reread. Sounds like I should. I love the premise, and good writing with a good premise is why we read! It does seem like it would be a calming book--not entirely sure why I think that, maybe an elegiac quality?

    1. Elegiac? Had to look that up. THAT'S IT! Thanks Jane.

  4. I've read all of Wilder's novels and his three most famous plays (Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Skin of Our Teeth)and I think they're all worth a look, but this and Theophilus North are my favorites. I hope you'll try some more Wilder!

    1. Yep, I'll definitely get to some more Wilder. I have only vague memory of Our Town...may have to revisit that.


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