Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Shannon Book Club- The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Shannon Book Club is so named, because I am pretty much the only one who ever reads this stuff. LOL!

This month the selection is The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thorton Wilder. It's a very short (150 pages) novel. The basic plot is as follows:

On July 20, 1714, "the finest bridge in all Peru" collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, happens to witness the tragedy, and as a result, he asks the central question of the novel: "Why did this happen to those five?" He sets out to explore the lives of the five victims, and to understand why they died. Ironically, his quest will lead to his own death.

The last book, Mr. Ives' Christmas, turned out to be in the top 20 best books I've ever read. I still need to write up a review for it. Let me know if you are up for reading and discussing The Bridge of San Luis Rey!!!

Edited to add my Review:
I think my reading was a little skewed because of the book which I read just before this one---which was just so, so intense. However, I will still try to give my thoughts.

The writing itself, is quite lovely. Not in an ornate way like Fitzgerald or James, and not in a total tightness and precision like Hemingway or even Steinbeck...but the language is unassuming and unobtrusive, nearly formal, but not enough so to make it difficult to read.

The book winds through the lives of the five people who were killed when the Bridge of San Luis Rey collapsed. We are reading with the aim of trying to piece together why these five were killed at that specific time. Though the look into each of their lives is brief, their lives all intertwine loosely with one another, and the reader gains a satisfying enough glimpse to feel as though the reader truly knows at least the three adults who died. We get fewer insights into the lives of the two children involved- so much less, in fact, that one doesn't quite know until the last pages of the book that the two children are the other two who comprise the five who died. That lack of information, in my opinion, is the one main shortcoming of the book.

In the case of the adults, each one of them was seen as dying to avoid either maligning a new start or conviction, or to avoid great harm, or to preserve their last good action. We are given a sense of the unseen lives on either side of the tragedy in question, lives which are made up of much vice and many shortcomings. However, before their death, fir each of the adults their is a small act of redemption. In the lives of the children, we are left to wonder if they were possibly preserved from a life of dissipation or of faltering into sins which hadn't yet overtaken them.

I found the framing of the story involving Brother Junipero's book rather awkward and somewhat artificial--almost like Wilder didn't quite know how to begin and end. However, we do gain some insight into the the disposition of Mr. Wilder, I believe, which is one of hope.

If you are looking for a very solid, worthwhile read, but do not have much time to commit to reading I heartily recommend this book. It is a firm reminder that the events of our lives and the lives of those around us are interconnected. It is a firm reminder that though we on the outside might never know, that there are unseen depths in the lives of those around us. It is a firm reminder that in the face of inexplicable tragedy to maintain hope that there is purpose.


  1. The Cos man just finished Wambaugh's new one:

    Hollywood Station

    An LA fix for a lost Ellroy fan:

  2. Somewhere around here we have a signed Ellroy. Tell me about Wambaugh? What kind of stuff does he write?? Is it noir?

  3. I got two signed Ellroy's. "My Dark Places" which was signed with I bought it and "The Cold 6000" which was personalize by Ellroy for me when I went to a reading a couple of years back.

    Wambaugh: "The Onion Field", "The Choir Boys", "The New Centurions" etc.

    He's 70 now, hasn't written a book in 10 years, Ellroy talked him into one more LA police book.

    Not Noir, more the nihilism of police work.

    I wouldn't have figured you for an Ellroy fan.

    Ya really gotta have callouses on your soul to appreciate him

  4. Do you like Jim Thompson? I think he's my favorite of all those guys...although I definitely have a major weakness for Hammett. Hammett, though, has much less muddled lines between good and bad--The Code is much easier to discern. LOL! It's probably a telling thing that my favorite Faulkner is Sanctuary. Which, incidentally, if you haven't read--I think you'd really like it (Although 'like' is not really the proper word)

    Wow--so did you like, meet Ellroy? Was it at a book signing or some other venue? Tell me about that