Posts Tagged ‘Wilder, Thornton’

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder ~ 1927. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1928 (later printing). Hardcover. 235 pages.

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below…

Thornton Wilder’s enduring classic (that clich├ęd phrase applies most pertinently) consists of a number of separate but increasingly entwined narratives. The accounts of the lives of the five travellers who perished are framed on each end by the ultimately tragic tale of Brother Juniper, who witnesses the disaster and in it finds a question: “Why did it 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 lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that instant 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.

The Marquesa de Montemayor, obsessed mother, secret alcoholic, astonishingly accomplished letter writer. Orphaned Pepita, bright hope of her convent home’s Mother Superior, lent to the Marquesa as a maid. Pio, jack-of-all trades and committed non-committer, except for his devotion to one person, the once-famous actress Camila Perichole. Jaime, Camila’s young son, frail and epileptic. Esteban, one of a set of twins, whose brother’s recent death has made his own life worthless in his eyes.

Wilder goes on to detail the lives – secret and otherwise – of the five travellers on the bridge, and delves into why they were there at that particular moment. And yes, everything (and everyone) turns out to be connected.

Brother Juniper, six years of research undertaken, yet not being privy to a few intimate details, concludes that the deaths are not as he had intended to prove, the fitting conclusion to lives attaining “a perfect whole”, but instead that they were random interruptions of lives not yet fully lived. The Inquisition disagrees with his thought processes, and Father Juniper perishes by flame, along with all of the copies of his thesis, except for one…

What a beautifully crafted little novel this is.

I read it for the first time in high school, after finding a dusty stack of discarded English lit books in the farthest corner of a classroom bookcase. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I did not have to “study” The Bridge of San Luis Rey, instead being able to read it from end to end without stopping for analysis, and not needing to dissect it in any way. It was a purely emotional experience, and so memorable that now, forty years later, every phrase is still familiar.

My rating: 9/10


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