Book Review:  The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I recently encountered an evaluation of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by a well-known author on a Facebook feed. The author compared it to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I could not agree or disagree because I have not read enough of Marquez’s work. However, the post itself and subsequent comments got me thinking about the novel and how I had read it long ago in high school and had comprehended nothing. Having just finished reading it now as an adult steeped in literature, I have to venture the opinion that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is not an appropriate work to be assigned to high school students because few of them would be able to understand it, or at least grasp its nuances. Despite its brevity (it is more a novella than a full novel) it is extremely complex, although always beautifully written.

The story concerns a fictional event that occurs near Lima, Peru, in 1714. An Incan rope bridge breaks, plummeting five travelers into a deep gorge to their deaths. A Franciscan friar named Brother Juniper witnesses the event and wonders why this disaster happened to these five people in particular. He spends years tracking down everyone he can find who knew them and eventually writing a thick book detailing his findings. The church condemns Brother Juniper as a heretic and burns him along with his book (although a secret duplicate copy survives in a museum), but the novel’s narrator claims “to know so much more” and sets down the stories of the five victims of the accident.

The Marquesa de Montemayor is a wealthy old woman who writes long letters to her estranged daughter in Spain. After her death, the letters are discovered and become renowned as great works of literature. She dies in the disaster along with her teenage companion Pepita. The incident occurs just after the Marquesa has experienced a profound change in her attitude towards life. Esteban is a laborer and jack-of-all-trades who was very close to his twin brother Manuel. They were orphans raised in a convent by a kind abbess. When Manuel dies, Esteban is inconsolably grief-stricken, and in this state he falls into the gorge and is killed. Uncle Pio is a mentor and patron of a famous stage actress. After the actress retires, she and Uncle Pio have a falling out, but then she agrees to let Pio take her son Jaime for training in Lima. On the way there Uncle Pio and Jaime are both killed.

At first the story is somewhat confusing, but as it proceeds we understand that the lives of these five people are intricately entwined. After the narrator has finished relating their stories, he tells of the demise of Brother Juniper and what becomes of the abbess, the actress, and the Marquesa’s daughter. The ending is elegant and emotionally satisfying, and I will not give it away so you can have the pleasure of reading this extraordinary story for yourself. I found it slow going at first, but it soon reaches a point where connections begin to form; once that point is reached, reading this rich, well-written tale is extremely rewarding. Highly recommended.

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