THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY | Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Summary from Goodreads:

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey,one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.

By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.

 

Ten years ago, I lost a very dear friend to a vehicular accident. He was fresh out of college and was enrolled in law school. He was known to many as a soft-hearted, kind, and generous soul. His future held a lot of promise and many were shocked by his untimely and very tragic death. I shed too many tears and I was asking why, of all people inside the car, should it be him who had to die? He was too good, too young, to die. But God alone knew the answer to that. That is, if one believes in God.

***

This book was an accidental discovery. I was browsing my Facebook news feed and I saw a friend’s short write-up praising this Pulitzer winner from Thornton Wilder. Since I trusted my friend’s reading taste, I made several clicks and after seeing (with delight) that a copy was readily available online (and that I had time to spare), I started to read it right there and then. Despite being a short read, The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a beautiful book about the innate nature of man and his capacity to love. No wonder this won the Pulitzer in 1928.

I actually did not know what compelled me to instantly read a book I only heard about for the first time. Usually, I would only add a newly discovered book to my TBR and would only read it after some time (sometimes, I even forgot about it). But with this book, the reading was spontaneous and wonderfully so. All along, I thought this would be a difficult book to read, it being published in 1927. I thought I would be bombarded with archaic language which actually made me stay away from classics, in the first place. And of course, I’ve heard a lot about Thornton Wilder being an intelligent writer and all, so I should be intimidated, but I wonder why I wasn’t. Could it be true indeed that a  certain book would always find its way to you in its perfect time?

My expectation, however, turned out to be wrong. The Bridge of San Luis Rey was easy to read and the themes were easy to digest. It wasn’t what I expected a philosophical book to be, which was highly preachy and would require a lot of brain cells to work for me to totally understand it. Although highly philosophical, Wilder was never preachy. Instead, he was matter-of-fact, sometimes unattached, but his resolutions begged serious pondering. Fans of Paolo Coelho might find similarities in the tone with this book  but if I were given the choice, I would prefer to read Wilder. Anytime.

I recently finished reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and I noticed a similarity in themes. The Bridge of San Luis Rey explores the idea that people are connected to each other no matter how different or unrelated they are. It attempts to answer the question commonly asked: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or simply, why do bad things ever happen? Wilder, through Brother Juniper, comes up with an easy answer:

“‘Why did this happen to those five?’ If there were any plan in the universe at all, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.”

The stories of the people who died in the freak accident, as seen through the eyes of Brother Juniper, were all bittersweet. They were all bound by their faults and guilt, but the overpowering force of love was the very thing that made them start — or at least made them attempt — to rebuild their lives anew. But of course, death had to disrupt that plan.

***

So, is it really God? Or is it man’s will? Or does death even matter at all? The answer would depend on how one sees life and the nature of the human capacity to love.

“All of us have failed. One wishes to be punished. One is willing to assume all kinds of penance, but do you know, my daughter, that in love — I scarcely dare say it — but in love our very mistakes don’t seem to last long?”

Such a very wonderful book. I highly recommended it.

*****

5/5 stars.

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