“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” by Thornton Wilder was published in 1927 and was a 1928 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize; the novel frequently thrown into high school courses or frequently forgotten is a little book that packs a big punch.
The novel follows the story of five interconnected people who died when the bridge of San Luis Rey collapsed in 1714, as they crossed it for varying reasons. From a distance, a friar, Brother Juniper, witnesses the collapse and decides to take it upon himself to prove that the collapse of the bridge that led to the death of the five was an act of God.
The narratives of their lives as told in the novel are a summary of Brother Juniper’s life work to know the individuals’ life stories.
The first story is that of two people on the bridge: the Marquesa de Montemayor, and within her story, that of her servant girl, Pepita. At the start of it, the Marquesa’s story is hard to follow and become engaged with as it is told in a confusing, rambling manner but as you continue to push through, it becomes clear that this is an intentional reflection of the old woman.
After braving through the beginning part of the Marquesa’s story that is less gripping because of its seemingly disordered narrative and conversation, the novel quickly becomes a page turner.
The Marquesa’s story and legacy centers around her complicated relationship with her daughter, Doña Clara, whom she loved dearly and wrote to often but whom had a strong disdain for her.
As we follow the Marquesa’s story, we learn of Pepita’s story: she is a young, hardworking girl who was raised at the Convent of Santa María Rosa de la Rosas, who, for the time being, in her loneliness and silence works for the Marquesa.
The second story is that of Esteban who for most of his life had been part of a set, that set being Esteban and Manuel, the twins who were also raised at the convent. As they grow older the brothers’ relationship becomes strained but does not break. Manuel dies from an injury and his death sends Esteban into great despair.
The third story is that of the last two people on the bridge: Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole’s son, Don Jaime. Uncle Pio made the Perichole into the greatest actress in all of Peru, which she then gives up to be a respected lady. Uncle Pio, years later and desperately still attached to her, visits the Perichole one last time and because of that visit ends up travelling with Don Jaime.
The narrative ends by jumping around to different people, times and places. It first jumps back to the Brother Juniper, then to the day of the service for those who died, and lastly, to a year after the bridge collapsed, ending in a simple way with a quite poignant revelation.
The novel works well for two reasons: the reader is not spoon fed all the details and facts and because the stories of the five people are deeply interwoven.
No concrete final assumptions are made for the reader, rather it is up to the reader’s understanding of life, purpose, and religion to determine all of what really happened and why it happened.
Wilder streamlines the life stories that Juniper tracked and compiled, leaving out the unnecessary details Juniper is described to have found as necessary and does not delve into the specifics of Brother Juniper’s findings; in doing this Wilder forces the engaged reader to, in a way, become Brother Juniper and do the same work he did.
Each individual character’s stories are all dependent on one another’s stories – Uncle Pio appears in the Marquesa’s story, the Perichole appears in Esteban’s, the Abbess in both Esteban’s and Pepita’s stories – as is accurate to the truth of how life is lived by each and every one of us. No character or event would be the same if any character had lived any other way or if one of the five that died on the bridge had not been there. In this way, the fiction feels historical, honest and real.
Despite the novel being 90 years old, the story explores themes that will still touch the heart of any reader in any day and age. The novel delves into the complicated yet simple themes and questions of/about various kinds of love, whether or not there is a greater purpose in life, what makes a life complete, remembering the dead, moving forward and forgiveness.
As I read the last, impactful sentences that sent shivers down my spine in the late hours of the night, I finished the novel and was left with more questions than I had had at any other point in the book. I found myself re-reading passages, searching for missing answers and in the moments after frustratedly accepting there would be no answers, I realized the true artistry of the book because I realized such is all of life.