Stephen M's Reviews > The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
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Jul 27, 12

bookshelves: time-100, mentions-mitchell, lifes-too-short-for-novels
Recommended to Stephen M by: David Mitchell
Recommended for: Riku!!!
Read in July, 2012

Perhaps a Review

A book about the connections that we forge between us, Thorton Wilder’s 1928, Pulitzer winning novel is a Great Gatsby-Heart of Darkness scale of a book, with the same type of compact brevity that the other two are famous for. The book also represents some of the ideas that were swirling around at the time in the modernist canon, all those ideas that were the precursor of the meta-fictive pomo literature that was to come some 40-50 years later. It’s often nice to explore this territory while it was still fresh, before fractured, multi-perspective stories became the norm, before it seeped all the way up to the more popular spheres of entertainment (see crash, inception and ugh... no wait.... hhuuuuuuuurrrrrlllll Valentine’s Day). I have nothing against it; I actually gravitate towards these types of stories, but it is nice taking a look at the seeming adolescent stages of fractured lit, before the Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf forebears came to the forefront of the canon, were christened as the “important” writers they are today and before first generation—the Pynchon, Gaddis crew—and second generation—DFW, Mitchell—both took this style of writing to its absolute extreme. Before all that writing—seems like such a simpler time, so many less authors, such a lower threshold of books to achieve the oft-desired, supercilious title of ‘well-read’—before all of that was Thorton Wilder’s concise, novella length opus, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

The first I became interested in it was per the recommendation of Mr. Mitchell, who called it the perfect little book. He uses a line from the opening chapter as the epigraph for his debut Ghostwritten and also names a character from the book Cloud Atlas after the bridge: San Luisa Rey. While I’m not quite in agreement with D. Mitch about it being a masterpiece, I do recognize some of its brilliance. And anyone who is a fan of the contemporary writer, will immediately recognize what drew D. Mitch to The Bridge of San Luis Rey: disparate story lines that connect in serendipitous ways, forming that higher, almost humanistic sense of ultimate connection between everything.

The meat of San Luis Rey is divided up into three short stories. Each one centers on a character that dies in a bridge collapse at the end of each story. The bridge is in a small town of Peru and is a cross-road for the major cities of Lima and Cuzco. When it collapses it kills five people in the process. With each story, we learn more about the town, through the perspectives of those that are killed. The first is the Marquesa de Montemayor. Her story mostly revolves around her struggle to connect with her daughter, and the majority of the exposition is carried in the letters that she addresses to her daughter who lives as a wealthy affluent member of royalty in Spain. Even setting aside the fact that the depiction of the Marquesa is slightly awash in antiquated notions of feminine hysteria, this is not necessarily the strongest character of the cast, as she spends the majority of her time bemoaning her lonely predicament and the ways in which both her husband and daughter have left her behind. The second story is about twin brothers Manuel and Esteban, who are so similar in every respect that no one can tell them apart. They are inseparable not just by proximity but by emotional connection. The way in which Wilder describes the two of them is almost indistinguishable. Obviously, it is a nice play on the closest possible connection two separate people can form. Given the context, a book preoccupied with trying to push people together, this gives a slightly different take on what it means to be close to another person. It seems that so many of the brothers’ features and traits are identical, so close to the ideal of inner-connection with a person that the two become inseparable in the mind of the reader. Narratively speaking they are the same person. But obviously the collapse of the bridge in the town (the bridge being a symbol for the commercial connections we form as societies) becomes the ultimate wedge between the brothers. This section was certainly the most intriguing from a character and thematic perspective. The last section follows up with a character that has emerged throughout the entire narrative, Perichole, a dancer/actress who plays a significant role in each of the principal characters’ lives. The last section focuses on Uncle Pio (Tio is spanish for “Uncle”, a little connection that I didn’t know what to do with). Uncle Pio is the lover and manager of Perichole, and the majority of the story is dedicated to their squabbles, bickerings and whatever else it is that couples argue about.

The main flaw of the book, is that the ideas far outweigh the content within. I suspect that Mr. Wilder thought of the idea of the book on a global scale, saw its potential, but when it came time to fill it with the actual meat of the story—the exposition—it fell a bit flat. And although the more boring aspects of the individual stories fill up the center of the book, the overarching ideas and the frame of the book are quite a bit of fun.

The first chapter is extraordinary, dropping off ideas with Pynchon-like speed, as it describes the collapse of the bridge and the subsequent effects it has on the town. We find out that all the stories within the book swirl around Brother Juniper, a devout member of the church who sees divine intention behind every action. The stories are couched in a larger narrative, that is Brother Juniper’s search for the connection between the people who died. The ties that bind the five of them together. Because why was it those five who had to die? Why specifically them? If the tension on the bridge had been even slightly less and the rope just one strand thicker, then those five wouldn’t have died, the five after may have. If they had all left a few minutes later or earlier, surely it would have been another set of five to have died off. It is these types of questions that inevitably rise from freak accidents that fuel the drive behind this book. Brother Juniper, assembles “studies” and tries to be “scientific” with his research, calculating how pious each person was, how utile they were to society in order to judge the reason behind their death. He wishes to see God’s ultimate intention, or as Wilder puts it in a jab at Milton “he would fall to dreaming of experiments that justify the ways of God to man”. As we read each story, it is really the “research” compiled by brother Juniper.

This is where it gets meta. Because traditionally when a reader reads a work of capital L literature, they are in search of a higher meaning behind the words, the ultimate significance behind it all. So as we read each story, which grow very detached from one another, we continue to seek out the ties that bind each story together, as it was Juniper’s intention to find God behind the stories of each person who dies. (Does that make the author God?) It was interesting that I was reading another “in search of significance” book in the same format, publisher (Perennial Classics) and font type as The Crying of Lot 49. It also becomes particularly Pynchon-esque at the end for poor old Brother Juniper. (view spoiler). Given the parallel between the search for God and the search for inter-textual meaning, the ending is a bit devastating.

The ending, as one would expect, is an agnostic’s ending, a resignation to ignorance. The question posed originally turns out to be a failure:

“Why did this happen to those five?’ If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those libes so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan”

These ideas struck home for me particularly, given the recent horrible events only fifteen miles from where I live, not to mention the high school that I attended. Horrible, inexplicable events have been standing in peripherals for a lot of my life, and in places where I spend my time and where I’ve grown up. It’s all so close and it’s such a reality and possibility of my life that my mind, and those of the people that I know, just beg for interpretation, wanting to find the reason behind such dramatic and violent events around us. There are words like randomness, freak accident and these things Just happen. But it’s a tough pill to swallow at times. The universe is violent and indifferent, and here we all are, trying to make the most sense that we possibly can.

Notable Quotes

"When he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purport 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."

"At times, after a day's frantic resort to such invocations, a revulsion would sweep over her. Nature is deaf. God is indifferent. Nothing in man's power can alter the course of law. Then on some street-corner she would stop, dizzy with despair, and leaning against a wall would long to be taken from a world that had no plan in it. But soon a belief in the great Perhaps would surge up from the depths of her nature and she would fairly run home to renew the candles above her daughter's bed."

"Love is inadequate to describe the tacit almost ashamed oneness of these brothers. What relationship is it in which few words are exchanged, and those only about the details of food, clothing and occupation; in which the two persons have a curious reluctance even to glance at one another; and in which there is a tacit arrangement not to appear together in the city and to go on the same errand by different streets? And yet side by side with this there existed a need of one another so terrible that it produced miracles as naturally as the charged air of a sultry day produces lighting. The brothers were scarcely aware of it themselves, but telepathy was a common occurrence in their lives, and when one returned home the other was always aware of it when his brother was still several streets away."
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Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Stephen M A whole lot of other great things that I didn't get to, but I need to get to work ah! I'm late!


message 2: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten These old classic novels, from our contemporary perspective, are sometimes hard to grasp the impact of a book like this in 1927. I didn't realize it was that old. Great review Stephen.


message 3: by Steve (new)

Steve Jumping Jehosaphat, Stephen! You're drawing on such a great set of books for context here. Seems like you've got more than the usual allotment of perspective to tease out themes and meaning. Well done!


Stephen M You're so right Jeff. I wonder how much this had an effect on the reading public. I mean, Faulkner had been around for a bit, but was not much popular yet at all.


Stephen M Thanks Steve. I sometimes worry if it's just showing-off name dropping bullshit, but it was really what I was thinking about while reading it. So there you go.

It's a really cool book. Easy read. Highly recommended for a Mitchell man like yourself.


message 6: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris This is a beautiful and heart-felt review, Stephen. I love the layers in it - literary context, a focus on the book on its own terms, and personal relevance to you. Definitely no sense of "showing-off name dropping bullshit" at all!


Stephen M My text to self, text to text and text to world exercises are finally paying off! Ya, first grade!!!!


Algernon i didn't get the Mitchell connection at first read, but I guess I see how they follow the same structure now. What I gor from your review is that I need to check out Pynchon soon, as I loved both the Wilder and the Mitchell. Thanks.


s.penkevich How did I miss this, I chicken cordon blew it.
I totally missed the Mitchell connections, nice. You drew some incredible connections here though, raising the story up to the world of literature and the meaning behind it all was a brilliant deduction. It almost makes it post-modern way ahead of it's time. Great review, sorry it took so long to find!


Stephen M Thanks guys. It's a quick read that packs some punch.

I would have been less apt to draw all those connections if it weren't for Mitchell including this book in both Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas.


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