I didn’t give Thornton Wilder much credit at the outset—I see that my initial post on The Bridge of San Luis Rey is honestly a bit disdainful of his talents (while praising the setting and theme, conceptually at least). But I have to revise my assessment, because he really is drawing me in.
This “second part” of the novel (it’s in five parts, the first being a very brief introduction already covered in my first post) focuses on the Marquesa de Montemayor. The conceit of this section is that we (the narrator and I, the reader) live in a world where the Marquesa is a famous historical figure—the letters she exchanged from Peru with her daughter in Spain are, if not as well-known as Shakespeare’s sonnets, at least on the level of Boswell’s Life of Johnson or the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams. So the book explores her relationship with her daughter through casual references to letters we “already know well” but adding details and insights to flesh out the Marquesa as a real person.
And she’s fascinating. The Marquesa is a physically unattractive (and fairly unpopular) mother of a beautiful and well-regarded girl, but of course the truth is that her daughter is a cruel and unfeeling person while the Marquesa’s affection for her daughter is seemingly unlimited. When her daughter moves to Spain with her husband, their extended correspondence is a burden to the daughter, but a labor of love for the mother—the Marquesa devotes essentially all her conscious hours to finding delightful little stories to share, or phrasing wicked remarks about bloated political somebodies. She’s whimsical, philosophical, and witty (though sometimes a bit acid with that wit). There’s a strange distance from her, of course, because of Wilder’s convention about her as a historical character: it’s less like getting to know Elizabeth Bennett than it is like reading a good biography of George Washington. No matter how vivid it is, somehow I’m always reminded that this happened a long time ago…that I’m not really there.
So, early on, I’m taken with the Marquesa as a figure but I don’t feel “alive” in her world. As it happens, I’ve been reading on a ways, so I have more to say about her, but I think it’s best to leave that for a post later today. Thornton Wilder, though, is starting to impress me….I don’t know why he’s chosen to focus so narrowly on this one woman at the outset, but I’m curious how all the lives of those lost on the bridge will ultimately weave together.