The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a novel I had never heard of prior to picking up a copy of it in the Met gift store. It wasn’t even until I got back to my dorm room and put this book on my shelf that I realized it was written by Thornton Wilder, the brilliant writer behind the play Our Town. Winner of the Pulitzer Price in 1928, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a collection of interwoven stories of five people who died while crossing an incredibly tall Peruvian bridge. Plagued with the seemingly unanswerable question of whether or not these individuals were destined to die, Brother Juniper makes it his mission to learn everything he possibly can about their lives. Rooted in the themes of love, life, death, fate, and art, this novel is more than simply an attempt to answer Brother Juniper’s inquiry; rather, it ponders the very existence of the question in the first place.
The setting was the first remarkable aspect of this book that captured my attention. The story takes place in 18th century South America (mostly Peru), which I’ve learned quite a bit about in various Spanish classes that I’ve taken. Specifically, it was interesting to read a novel written in English yet set in a Spanish-speaking country and revolving around characters who are Spanish. There are numerous instances where Spanish phrases and names are used, but they are usually contextualized enough that someone who doesn’t understand Spanish can roughly figure out the general meaning. It makes me wonder whether Wilder knew a lot of Spanish; at the very least, I do know that he didn’t visit Peru for the first time until 1941, well after he had written this novel. In a Washington Post review by Jonathan Yardley, it was noted that he made several incorrect assumptions about Peruvian culture and life:
“Pheasant may be a priestly dish in England, but it is virtually unknown in Peru. Peruvians love their chicken and cook it as well as anyone in the world, but wild game is not on the menu. Wilder seems to have thought that it rains often in Lima, a city where to all intents and purposes it never rains at all.”
Though it obviously would have been better if Thornton had more accurately represented the culture of the time period, I ultimately don’t think these inconsistencies had a significant negative impact on the novel. As Yardley goes on to say in his review:
“So it probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea if Wilder had visited Peru in 1925 rather than in 1941, when he did for the first time, but in truth that is neither here nor there. In his broader strokes Wilder has created a Peru that I recognize and Peruvians who remind me in some way of Peruvians whom I know. In any event ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ deals in universals and just happens to be set in Peru.”
I love Yardley’s point that this novel “deals in universals” because it perfectly describes the almost philosophical stance from which Thornton tells this story. The time period and setting and characters are so specifically and carefully crafted with tiny details, yet the story itself could really have taken place anywhere. This is a testament to the universality of this novel’s major themes and questions about life and death, a reflection of the fact that we all must face these issues at some point in our lives. The stories of these five individuals present a sort of microcosm of life in general, presenting the reader with different challenges and experiences that must be confronted eventually.
Despite the seemingly random assortment of people who die while crossing the bridge, the conclusion of this novel miraculously connects them all thematically and through the plot itself. Yet the ending is arguably not even the most important part– really, is one single part of this book more important than any other? I would assert no; rather, each section of this novel is equally significant, sharing a piece of the puzzle that’s necessary in order to have a complete whole. The unexpected cohesiveness of the story is part of what makes The Bridge of San Luis Rey such a brilliant novel.
Of course, I can’t finish this review without mentioning the beauty of Wilder’s writing. Not only is he an excellent writer in the sense of word choice, sentence structure, etc., but I also couldn’t help but marvel at the seemingly effortless way he conveys such profound meaning in simple statements. This novel is short, but it certainly packs a punch. Wilder’s writing style allows him to say exactly what he needs to in a little over one hundred pages.
“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Overall, I’m so glad that I randomly picked this book up in the gift shop that day. Thornton Wilder is a brilliant writer and I cannot wait to read more of his work. I know that I’ll be returning to The Bridge of San Luis Rey time and time again in the years to come!
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5 smileys
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Absolutely! Especially one who is a fan of Our Town or is interested in Latin American literature.
What do you think of this book? Have any recommendations for other works by Thornton Wilder? Let me know in the comments section below!