Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The classic brief encounter story. The chance meeting of a man and a woman. They fall immediately, desperately and hopelessly in love. And then, almost before we and they know it, it's all over. They part forever. But ... maybe this time it is otherwise?

At the Texaco gas station, at the supermarket, or in the little church, you'll find the local folks, solid and conservative citizens all. And these citizens all know that a woman's place is firmly clamped to the side of her husband. And, as you might expect, such solid citizens must make it their business to study the business of any stranger in town...

From a higher and almost spiritual plane, in a sense from the world of the peregrine, that large and swift falcon that hides in the sun's light and roams the world's mountainsides and crags, there arrives on the scene one Robert Kincade, a long-haired hippie with a bundle of battered cameras and a National Geographic assignment to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County. He stops his truck at a farm entrance and asks a woman for directions...

The story succeeds on one level because it very cleverly allows the reader to share the thoughts of both the lovers. We are from the start, privy to all their thoughts. We will always know what's going on. All the cards, as the saying goes, will be on the table. We have complete confidence in the author. We sense that he is not going to spring any nasty tricks or surprises.

Another theme that Robert James Waller is exploring is the transmigration of souls, that we had other existences, perhaps as humans, but also as animals, birds or fish.

We have all met somebody and instantly felt that we have met before, perhaps even in a previous existence. Maybe our lives are bound together in some way unbeknown to us. When the lovers meet they sense within minutes that there is something not of this world going on. Another power is at work. In another place, let's call it Dimension Z, a third being is to be created from the two.

Another reason the story succeeds is that it's very poetic. The language in a great deal of it, except in the correspondence at the end, has a flow and a gentle rhythm. It is therefore an easy read. There is no requirement to go back and reread things, for it all unfolds as naturally as it should.

She noticed his iced tea almost gone and poured him some more from the jug.
"Thanks. How do you like it here in Iowa?"
There was a moment of truth in this. She knew it. The standard reply was, "Just fine. It's quiet. The people are real nice."
She didn't answer immediately.

Robert James Waller dedicates his book to the peregrines; but not only to those peripatetic birds, it's also written for men like Robert Kincade, men who peregrinate through the world, the lonesome wanderers amongst us.

Poet-in-Residence verdict: Buy one for someone you love.

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