Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


Thornton Wilder is probably best known as the playwright of Our Town.  Wilder was awarded a National Book Award and three Pulitzer Prizes throughout his career.  One of the Pulitzers was for The Bridge of San Luis Rey and it is not hard to see why.  There are very few 118 page books that are this ambitious. 
The plot concerns five people who are killed when a bridge collapses in Peru in 1714.  A monk witnesses the bridge collapse and sets about interviewing everyone he can about the people who died and from there we get a glimpse into what it was that brought these people together.  The overarching theme of the book is love, love in many forms:  platonic, romantic, familial, obsessive, and most especially unrequited.  One-sided love dominates the lives of most of the characters.  A woman loves her indifferent daughter and misses her so greatly that she writes letter after letter – letters so beautiful that they are studied by school children a hundred years later.  Twin brothers have their lives upturned when one of them falls in love with a beautiful singer.  There are characters that make appearances in multiple sections of the book as many of the lives overlapped leading to the bridge collapse. 
Wilder provides no easy answers for what happens to his characters; instead he presents them as they are with gorgeous, restrained writing.  There is tragedy, regret, and redemption and all are shown in various ways.  Wilder wrote so poignantly about loss and what love means in the face of tragedy that Prime Minister Tony Blair quoted the last few lines of The Bridge of San Luis Rey at a memorial for victims of September 11.
If you would like to read another far-reaching story that was inspired by The Bridge of San Luis Rey you could try Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  Or if you would like a non-fiction work about multiple people in the aftermath of a tragedy you could check out Hiroshima by John Hersey who was also influenced by Wilder’s work. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great suggestion, thanks!