Richard's Reviews > The Bridge Of San Luis Rey

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
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's review
Aug 10, 11

bookshelves: 2011, favorites
Recommended to Richard by: Kevin
Read in June, 2003 — I own a copy

The Captain Alvarado pushed in from the sunny square for a moment. He looked across the fields of black hair and lace at the trooping of the candles and the ropes of incense. "How false, how unreal," he said and pushed his way out. He descended to the sea and sat on the edge of his boat, gazing down into the clear water. "Happy are the drowned, Esteban," he said.

A bridge collapses in Cuzco, killing five random Peruvians of disperate social classes and backgrounds. A Franciscan priest sets out to write the biographies of the dead.

Like Ecclesiastes and the book of Job, The Bridge of San Luis Rey asks the question Why do bad things happen? but, in searching out the matter, the narrative is incapable of offering a definite answer. Instead it offers several possible but unsatisfying answers and a series of even less satisfying questions. Why does the bridge collapse, sending five people to a premature death? Was God impotent to help the victims, or merely cruel in ordaining their demise? What good, if any, can come of such a tragedy? Are the lives of men governed by random chance and superstition (as the Marquesa of Montemayor believes) or by the invisible, inscrutable benevolence of God (as Brother Juniper believes)? Do good men deserve to live? Do bad men deserve to die? "Either we live by accident and die by accident," asserts the Brother Juniper at the outset of the story, "Or we live by plan and die by plan."

I was surprised to read in the afterword that The Bridge received popular and critical praise when it was first published. It was even serialized in major American newspapers. The book netted for Mr. Wilder the 1928 equivalent of a million dollars. I find it hard to believe that a book of such high, poetic diction and complex themes was a hit among regular reading folk. What tops the bestseller list now? Twilight? Harry Potter? Sorry. I know it's easy to complain about how things were better in the days of yesteryear. But can you imagine a time when the common man went about with a copy of a Thornton Wilder book tucked under his arm?

Ah! I am so often nostalgic for an era in which I never lived.

Thanks to my friend Kevin for recommending this book to our book club. Kevin: you are a genius.
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Quotes Richard Liked

Thornton Wilder
“the whole purport of literature...is the notation of the heart. Style is but the faintly contemptible vessel in which the bitter liquid is recommended to the world.”
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey


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