Review of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY – Waller

1992, Warner Books, 171 pages

A book for lovers who know that it is the animal spirits which draw together legendary hearts. In The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller recalls the story of how two such legendary hearts came together for four days. Bridges tells the story of Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid, who, like Waller, is also a photographer and writer.

There are couples who come together for a little while, and drift apart. There are the couples who come together and stay together, and have heard of love, but do not know it. And then there are the couples whose attraction is so elemental that though they know one another but for a few days, they are drawn again and again in their memories and dreams to one another for a lifetime. That is what happened between Robert and Francesca and that is what makes this small book so endearing: the wonder of how four days can define a life.

They meet while Kincaid is on assignment for National Geographic to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County. I think what Waller does is to use the bridges as an analogy of the gulf between man and woman. Between man and woman is a river of misunderstanding. But when you put a bridge between them, they come together. That bridge in the novel is the animal attraction between some men and some women. Between most men and women, the waters are too deep, too rough, too wide for the bridge to span. But between Francesca and Robert, the bridge is just perfect:

Toward morning, he raised himself slightly and said, looking straight into her eyes, “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all those years, I have been falling toward you.

There is a directness to Waller’s writing that suits the narrative. If Kincaid is the “last cowboy,” then Waller himself may be said to write in a cowboy style: direct, capable, precise, with an economy of motion and a frugality with words. There is much in common between Kincaid and Waller. Like Kincaid, Waller is a photographer. In fact, he “makes” (to use Waller’s term) the photographs of the bridges of Madison county in the novel. Like Kincaid, Waller has the cowboy style, is the last cowboy. One of the things that makes this book fascinating is that one wonders, given the similarities between Kincaid and Waller, if the book is a love letter to a real life Francesca? The dedication “For the peregrines,” leaves this open: there is no human dedicatee, as is the custom.

What do these cowboys do? The book, which came out in 1992 and is set in 1965 is prescient in a way. Cowboys in this book are courageous and daring individuals:

“There’s a certain breed of man that’s obsolete,” he had said. “Or very nearly so. The world is getting organized, way too organized for me and some others. Everything has a place, a place for everything. Well, my camera equipment is pretty well organized, I admit, but I’m talking about something more than that. Rules and regulations and laws and social conventions. Hierarchies of authority, spans of control, long-range plans, and budgets. Corporate power, in ‘Bud’ we trust. A world of wrinkled suits and stick-on name tags.

“Not all men are the same. Some will do okay in the world that’s coming. Some, maybe just a few of us, will not. You can see it in the computers and robots and what they portend. In older worlds, there were things we could do, were designed to do, that nobody or no machine could do. We run fast, are strong and quick, aggressive and tough. We were given courage. We can throw spears long distances and fight in hand-to-hand combat.

“Eventually, computers and robots will run things. Humans will manage those machines, but that doesn’t require courage or strength, or any characteristics like those. In fact, men are outliving their usefulness.”

This is even more true today in 2020 than in 1992. But perhaps not in the way Waller foresaw. Yes, computers and robots have taken over the world. But we still find ways to practise daring on the road. Yesterday, the cowboys were hired guns, hired by National Geographic and other publications to take photographs across the world. Today, with computers, you can, with daring, make yourself. Buy a cellphone with a good camera and get a ticket. Start a blog and post pictures of your adventures. If you persist and have cowboy talent, you will make it. Computers and robots perhaps have opened up another frontier on the human ranch. Kincaid, I believe, would do well today.

The story of the animal spirits let loose between Francesca and Robert reminded me of love, how I have loved and have been loved. Love is a most fascinating emotion, as, of all the emotions, it is the one which can only be shared. In love is a great mystery, which the book does a good job of relating. First, you have to find her. Then, you have to see if she likes you. Usually, she will choose. Then, the time must be right. If the time is right, then the dance can proceed. But then there has to be enough runway. Many things have to come together for the bridge to connect lovers. And then, if there is enough runway, you have to have the courage to commit. That perhaps is the hardest, especially for the cowboys who have been solitary for so long. How many times has love been squandered from a fear to commit? Perhaps a rhetorical question.

The story of Francesca and Robert reminds me of how books and readers, like lovers, have to come together at the right time. When I was younger, I read Hesse’s Demian, which filled me with wonder. The teenage years were the right time for that book. If I were to read it today, it could be very well be that I would like it less. Bridges is special to me because of two reasons. The first is that this is the right time for me to read this book. There are stages in life, and in each stage, we do the things appropriate to that age. Robert’s in his early fifties and Francesca is in her mid-forties. I’m 45, the right age to appreciate their experiences and emotions. The second reason is that the book was a gift from a woman who reminds me herself of Francesca. So many times as she’s walked across the room, I wonder if she notices my gaze on her hips, on how she moves, just like how one Iowa summer, a long time ago, Francesca felt Robert’s gaze on her body as she fussed over the coffeepot on the kitchen counter. It strikes me with a sense of wonder how the woman who’s picked out her man will not only forgive him his lust, but will be pleased that he finds everything in her enticing in the utmost. To have experienced this dynamic is to have felt one of the mysteries of life.

Valentine’s day fast approaches, and as it approaches, let us think on Francesca and Robert, these two lovers for whom four days was enough for a lifetime. Ah. Oh.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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