1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder


From the Back Cover:

The novel opens in the aftermath of an inexplicable tragedy–a tiny footbridge in Peru breaks, and five people hurtle to their deaths. For Brother Juniper, a humble monk who witnesses the catastrophe, the question is inescapable: Why those five? Suddenly, Brother Juniper is committed to discover what manner of lives they led–and whether it was divine intervention that took their lives, or a capricious fate.

My Thoughts:

I was intrigued by the concept of the novel from the beginning: is it possible to reconstruct the lives of those destroyed by tragedy and discover a reason for their deaths? It’s the sort of question that plagues anyone who has lost a loved one. Why did it happen? Was there some sort of reason or purpose? Because death is something that feels so senseless when you’re faced with it. It’s a question that people have sought answers for though religion and philosophy for thousands of years.

But Brother Juniper goes about the question in an entirely different way. He is meticulously scientific for a monk, preferring mathematics and statistics, and obsessed with tragedy. He holds within himself what many people today would call conflicting interests: science and religion, but they fit hand in hand for Brother Juniper. He believes that he can objectively prove and explain God and tragedy, creating a formula of sorts to describe the indescribable.

This is only the setup of the novel, though. Where the story really takes off is when it begins to describe the lives of the five victims of the bridge collapse. They are each nuanced and distinct characters, each with their own flaws and desires, sorrows and joys, and each with their own story. Wilder conveys an approachable humanity through each of the characters. While I wouldn’t necessarily call all of the characters relatable, they are all recognizable. Their lives are filled of the same mixed up confusion of emotions and events and actions that we have all experienced. There is nothing neat or tidy about the lives or deaths of any of the characters. And even the deaths themselves seem senseless and confusing. Some characters have just turned a page and are trying to change for the better. Some are continuing down a path of brokenness and sorrow.

Each of the dead has their own separate and distinct story. But they are also all part of a larger story. Their lives intertwine and interact. They each have, in some small way, an effect on the others’ lives, and on the lives of people not killed in the bridge collapse. The story unfolds bit by bit like a mystery novel. During the early character stories, we see the other victims begin to play a role, and as the story progresses, you begin to wonder, as the reader, if perhaps there was a larger purpose behind their deaths.

The fault of Brother Juniper’s investigation, however, his own flaw and personal tragedy within the story, is assuming that the bridge collapse is an effect of some previous cause in each of the victims lives. He sees their deaths as the end of the story, instead of the beginning. But what Thornton Wilder suggests instead is that tragedy is instead the beginning, the cause for a later effect. It is the way in which the survivors begin to come together to mourn and attempt to move on from the tragedy that concludes the novel. And it is here that Wilder gets at the root of tragedy and loss. It is only the beginning of the story for the survivors. It is the way in which people attempt to cope with loss and death and find themselves and their lives in the aftermath.

In that way the book itself mirrors the mourning process. It begins with the tragedy, with the question Why? and the search for answers in the midst of loss. And then moves on to a remembrance of those lost, a memorial or sorts. Each of the characters chapters is a sort of eulogy for the deceased. And the novel concludes with the survivors attempting to find some comfort and means of living their lives in the new reality of loss.

Favorite passage:

The Archbishop knew that most of the priests of Peru were scoundrels. It required all his delicate Epicurean education to prevent his doing something about it; he had to repeat over to himself his favorite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune. Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely-read could be said to know that they were unhappy.

Why you should read it:

It’s an intriguing mystery that slowly unfolds as you learn more about each of the deceased, but with such real and relatable characters. The story is filled with humor, sorrow, joy, and every emotion in between, and Wilder gives a beautiful description of humanity through each of his characters.

Currently reading: Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin


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