On The Bridges of Madison County, many years late

There are books to make you laugh and cry and books to make you seethe, some to set you thinking, a few to throw your dreams up into the air. And there’s the rare book that will make you write.

The Bridges of Madison County is one of them. The book itself spelt promise- the creamy-yellow cover; the watercolor of a covered bridge over a stream; simple, elegant lettering for the title and the author’s name. And the sentiment that flowed from the name- the bridges of Madison county, so far away and so quiet, so insistently reminiscent of soft lamp light and languid evening dreams.

The story is trite enough; a simple saga of idealized love- a man and a woman meet one summer afternoon and give in to a brief, passionate affair, but never meet again. Their love endures through the years apart, the memory of their few days together burning alive unto death.

Some of this story is told in dialogue between the lovers, and the dialogue is ill-written. No human being has ever talked, or will talk like Robert Kincaid- the florid diction and worn images could have been lifted from an 18th century romance. His poetic imaginings are largely directed on himself; he romanticizes his own living obsessively; and somehow his driving around in a pick-up truck he calls “Harry” and Waller’s precise, minute descriptions of Kincaid at work wear some of the charm off his character. Kincaid’s love doesn’t strike you as giving; it’s of the world, driven and animal.

By contrast, Francesca’s is patient and selfless. She doesn’t ask anything in return- not a new home; not freedom from constricted life in a small 1960s American farm; not even a promise to stay in touch. But “I have never stopped thinking of him, not for a moment.”

Waller sketches the waiting 22 years skillfully, flitting often between past and present- Robert Kincaid waiting between photography assignments and travel; Francesca waiting between birthdays near the Roseman Bridge, between children and husband and propriety- for no hope of future bliss, but waiting because they loved once, and it was for always.

Such love “happens”, I’m told. For some it just happens in movies where the heroines are dressed very feminine and the settings are cornfields and valleys and riversides all lush and green, much like Waller’s Iowa. Some people like to think of their own loving in Kincaid’s and Francesca’s ways. I have read better and stranger love stories; Wuthering Heights is a case in point, but I was staggered by Waller’s honesty to his story. It’s magic woven when he writes in the bored housewife’s voice, who doesn’t know why she’s falling for a man she has known for hours, the utter inscrutability of her feelings, and the universal not-knowing- why do we love those we love? The answer comes soft and breezy- because we do. This un-knowing is celebrated quietly in every page.

The author doesn’t justify the love between his protagonists any more than this. I understand why, having loved different men and worshipped one as I’d worship a god.

And Waller shows love is why we’ve all had little secret beauty rituals before our mirrors, and lit candles on lonesome birthdays, watched dusty cars disappear around corners, walked down bridges closer home. Writing such love so well is a stupendous achievement. And Bridges, for all its imperfections, is a stunning book.

 

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