Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey tells the story of a bridge that collapses in the early 18th century between the cities of Lima and Cuzco in Peru. A Franciscan monk named Brother Juniper witness the incident and decides that this tragedy provides him a perfect test case to prove that we live by God's plan, and that there are no true accidents. Accordingly, he investigates the lives of the five people who perished on the bridge, and goes so far as creating a chart of their goodness and usefulness to compare to those who survived.

That, however, is only the frame story--the bulk of San Luis Rey is three tales which describe the five victims of the bridge collapse: The Marquesa de Montemayor, Esteban, and Uncle Pio (also perishing are the Marquesa's orphan ward Nina and Uncle Pio's student-to-be Jaime). The three stories are finely intertwined, and share many other characters in common, principally a character named the Perichole, a reknowned (and historical) Peruvian actress. The Marquesa is a widely belittled public figure whom the Perichole ridicules during a performance (but, we learn later, the Marquesa's letters to her daughter in Spain become treasured as a literary achievement after her death). Esteban is the bereaved twin brother of Manuel, a poor orphan copies letters for and is in love with the Perichole (before he dies of gangrene). Uncle Pio is the Perichole's benefactor, to whom she entrusts her son Jaime as a student. There are other recurring characters, like the Abbess and orphanage director Maria del Madre Pilar, and the Spanish Viceroy Don Andres de Ribera, but the Perichole is the closest thing that San Luis Rey has to a main character.

Ultimately, Brother Juniper is unable to come to a conclusion regarding the plan that sent these five to the great beyond, and the book he writes is condemned as heretical. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, too, seems to lack a certain answer regarding why they had to die this way, but there is no doubting that there is an interesting pattern at work in the interwoven threads of the story. When the Perichole and the Marquesa's daugter, Dona Clara, come to serve in the Abbess Maria del Madre Pilar's abbey, there is the suggestion not that their dedication to God in the face of suffering is the result which justifies the tragedy, but that at least there is some faint echo of purpose and design.

I liked this book, though at a tiny 110 pp. it seemed a little inconsequential--which is quite the opposite of what it intends, I think. That however, is probably just my hang-up. It did win the Pulitzer prize in 1928.

1 comment:

Mouse said...

I think out of all the books I have to read this year, this is probably my favorite. The true beauty of this book comes through between the lines, and should be read with careful attention to the little details that foreshadow many of the events. The thing that I love about Wilder, is his ability to get you to care about the characters. I'm currently writing an interpretive essay of two of those wonderful characters, of how The Marquesa de Montemayor's love for her daughter had changed from selfless love, to ridiculous passion.
My favorite characters are more of the lesser kind. Pepita (in my copy, hr name wasn't Nina) isn't given as much credit as there should be. She was a complex character, with the mirror effect of love with the Abbess, as it was for Dona Maria to Dona Clara, which was reveled just before they both had died. I would have also loved if there was more on Jaime, and Captain Alverado (I'm not sure on the spelling). Their characters had an extremely well amount of potential, as well as an air of interest.
And before I ramble on:
=) Good luck on those fifty books, I've got to gt back to work on my essay!