The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Growing up in California, surrounded by towns with names like Santa Monica and San Bernardino, it was easy to assume that The Bridge of San Luis Rey was set in California in the 20th century. The novel is actually set in Peru in 1714. A major bridge between Lima and Cuzco collapses and five people fall to their deaths. A priest wonders why God decided these particular people should die, spends six years looking into their lives and writes a book telling what he learned.

Unfortunately, only the first and last chapters of this short novel refer to the priest, his search for meaning and his book. The other chapters are written in the voice of an omniscient narrator who explains how these five unfortunate people ended up on that bridge on that day. 

One of the victims is a neurotic aristocrat; another is her servant. Another is a neurotic young man, born an orphan and a twin. The last two are an older man, the mentor of a neurotic actress, and the actress’s young son. It seems unlikely that there were so many neurotic people in Peru in 1714, but since the novel was written in 1927, perhaps Thornton Wilder was influenced too much by Freud. None of the characters are especially interesting; most are especially annoying. The language of the novel suggests its setting and time period, but there are too many references to supposedly famous Spaniards and Peruvians whose names (real or fictitious) will mean nothing to a modern reader.

In the foreword to this edition, the novelist Russell Banks claims that The Bridge of San Luis Rey is “as close to perfect a moral fable as we are ever likely to get in American literature”. I thought it was tedious and the characters were unconvincing. Reading about their psychological turmoil seemed pointless.

At the end of the novel, Wilder writes: “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five shall have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten….There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning”. It’s a worthy conclusion, but not one that’s demonstrated in the pages of this disappointing book.  (4/18/13)