Cbr12bingo Roaring Twenties
I know I read this book in high school, but I didn’t remember much about it before re-reading it this week. I think it’s the kind of novel that means more to you the more you’ve lived and seen of the world, and reading it in our very troubled times was a kind of balm for the soul. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, published in 1927 and winner of the 1928 Pulitzer, is the fictional story of five people whose lives end tragically when a bridge collapses. Through the stories of these people and of the Franciscan Brother who studies them, Wilder demonstrates that ultimately, the only thing in life that really matters is love and that love has a power beyond reason or measure.
Both the opening and closing lines of The Bridge of San Luis Rey are famous in their own right.
“On Friday, noon, July twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
Our unknown narrator relates this to us long after the event itself has occurred, but the immediacy of the bridge collapse is real. Our news is filled with such random acts of God, where tragedy strikes unexpectedly and we, the observers (via video if not in person), are witnesses and cannot help but imagine ourselves in the place of victims. We ask, “why?” Why them? Why not me? In Lima, Peru, on July 20, 1714, Brother Juniper, a missionary, is a witness to the tragedy of the bridge collapse, and he resolves to do a scientific/theological study of the victims’ lives in order to provide proof that God has a plan for us, that these tragedies are not random or accidental. The narrator tells us that ultimately Brother Juniper’s study ends up in the flames of the Inquisition along with Brother Juniper himself, but the narrator, having found a surviving copy of the study, is able to tell us the previously unknown stories of the five victims and of those who survived.
The first victims we meet are the Marquesa de Montemayor and her servant Pepita. The Marquesa was a very wealthy woman whose daughter Clara showed nothing but disdain and contempt for her. According to the narrator, the Marquesa is now known for the letters she wrote to her daughter, letters that are considered literary masterpieces and studied around the world for their style and content. Yet, the Marquesa that we meet is an overbearing, desperate and lonely woman. Clara is her world, but we can understand why Clara goes to such pains to get away from her oppressive, needy mother. When Clara marries and moves away, the Marquesa becomes depressed and alcoholic. She talks to herself and becomes an eccentric object of ridicule throughout Lima.
Pepita is an orphan under the wing of Madre Maria, the abbess of a convent/orphanage/hospital. The abbess sees Pepita as her successor, the one who will carry on her work and legacy in Lima. As such, Pepita needs to get an education and connections; thus, when the Marquesa approaches the abbess for a girl to come live with her, the abbess sends Pepita. She is a good servant but lonely in the Marquesa’s household. She is devoted to the Marquesa, preventing the other servants from taking advantage of the old woman, but this makes Pepita the target of their scorn. The Marquesa is not cruel or mean, but her attention is so focused on Clara and on her own personal loss and sense of being under loved by her daughter that she doesn’t recognized the loneliness of Pepita. It is only after a pilgrimage to pray for her daughter’s pregnancy that the Marquesa is made aware of Pepita’s loneliness and her desire to return to the abbess, a desire expressed in a letter Pepita refuses to send because she believes is demonstrates a lack of bravery. Reading this letter and witnessing Pepita’s bravery and devotion serve as a wake up call to the Marquesa. She resolves to change her ways and live a better life, and thus pens her finest (and final) letter to her daughter. Just after this, the Marquesa and Pepita die in the tragedy.
The next victim, Esteban, is a young man in his 20s who was also one of the abbess’ orphans. Esteban had had a twin brother named Manuel, and we learn that the two were so close they had a secret language and seemed to be able to communicate telepathically. After leaving the orphanage they lived together and worked as scribes, employment which brought them in contact with the theater world and the most famous and talented actress in Lima — Camila, aka The Perichole. Camila is the Viceroy’s mistress and entertains many other lovers. Because she cannot write, she hires Manuel to pen letters to her lovers for her, but she does not realize that Manuel has fallen in love with her himself. Esteban understands it though; part of him is hurt because his love for his brother seems to be greater than Manuel’s for him, but part of him also wants Manuel to be happy. Manuel denies his feelings and refuses to work for Camila, but after becoming ill, while in great pain, his true feelings seem to come out. Tragedy separates the brothers, and Esteban suffers from great depression, wandering from town to town and avoiding those who would help him. Before his death on the bridge, it seems as if Esteban has found a way to push forward in life despite his sadness and pain.
Finally, we have the story of Uncle Pio, the teacher/father figure to Camila. Pio was born an illegitimate son of a good family in Spain. He was exposed to culture and education, but lived the life of an adventurer, winding up in Lima, where he became a servant/assistant to the Viceroy. Pio discovered Camila singing in taverns when she was a child and adopted her, developing her talents as an actress and promoting her career. When Camila became the Viceroy’s mistress, Pio became part of an inner circle of men who loved and promoted the arts in Lima. Pio, ever observant, began to realize a few things about Camila. First, that she had never really been in love with someone, and that this influenced her acting ability and limited her. Second, he saw that she was losing interest in acting and wanted to become a wealthy lady of society. Camila eventually got her wish, retiring to a farm just outside the city, raising her children by the Viceroy there. Pio would visit, but Camila came to resent it because it reminded her of the past she wanted to leave behind. Her focus was on her social status and her son Jaime, who was a sickly child. When Camila fell on hard times due to illness and her own negative image of herself and of the people of Lima, Pio – despite Camila’s harsh treatment of him – tried to help her by offering to educate Jaime and turn him into a gentleman. She reluctantly agreed, and Pio and Jaime perished on the bridge.
The final section of the novel deals briefly with Brother Juniper and his fate. His goal of finding proof of God’s plan led to his persecution by his own church. “He sat in his cell that night trying to seek in his own life the pattern that had escaped him in five others.” Juniper tried to take a scientific, rational approach to understanding something that really defies such inquiries. The chapter then turns to those dealing with grief from the loss of those they loved — the abbess, Camila, and Clara. The interactions among these women and the epiphanies they experience are simply beautiful and do more to shine a light on God’s plan than any scientific study ever could. The abbess’ revelation closes the novel with another well known and much repeated quote. She considers that most people are not remembered long after their deaths; those who remember them eventually die and memory dies with them.
“But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
So beautiful and so true! Every one of us is flawed; we worry about things we can’t control, we don’t see clearly those who are right there by us, we focus on the wrong things, we get overwhelmed and depressed. We certainly don’t do ourselves any favors by thinking about God’s plan as a series of boxes that need to be ticked off before we earn salvation. The plan is simple. The plan is love. Even when we screw up, it’s ok because, as the abbess says, “… in love our very mistakes don’t seem able to last long.” I loved this novel. It’s beautifully written and it’s timeless. I’m glad I read it now. I recommend this particular edition for its forward by Russell Banks.