So it wasn’t until last year that I got around to reading Our Town. And it stunned me. I was expecting something corny and dated, and was completely taken with Wilder’s beautiful language and fascinating experiments.
A year or so later now, I have finally picked up his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, not knowing anything about it. Within two pages I was struck once more by the almost mystical feeling I get from Wilder’s language.
The story is a simple one (and it’s a very brief work at just 34,000 words). It retells the 18th-century event that occurred just outside Lima, Peru when the famous bridge across a vast chasm falls apart and five Lima residents plunged to their deaths.
A Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, decides this is the ideal event to study for proof of his theory that one can objectively describe why these five people would have been selected for this fate. He believed, of course, that the good were being called to Heaven for their reward and the bad were being punished.
So the book is the result of his extensive study of the five victims. Wilder gives us wonderfully drawn portraits of the five people, how their lives intersected and how they were related to those who survived them.
I won’t go into the conclusions Brother Juniper draws, but let me just say that, like Our Town, I was amazed at the power and beauty of this narrative. I can’t explain why Wilder isn’t taught more, but this novella is ninety years old now and has never been out of print, so I suspect that my lack of awareness about Wilder may be an anomaly.
Incidentally, Sam Waterston reads the audiobook, and his quiet, almost breathless reading, really enhances the atmosphere. Listen to it, read it, and I hope you will love it as I did.