Reviewed by Patricia Selinger, Head of Preservation
When I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I feel I am in the presence of great art. The author’s prose flows and evokes imagery like a masterpiece. It is a worthwhile diversion to refresh the spirit. With 200 pages, more or less depending on the edition, it takes just a short time to immerse into and emerge from a tale sure to stay with you forever.
The book begins with what Brother Juniper witnessed one day as he was walking on the road, just ten minutes from the bridge himself. He had stopped for a moment to celebrate the peace and joy in his heart. Then he heard a snapping sound and saw five people on the Bridge of San Luis Rey fall to their deaths. Trying to make sense of the incident, he wrote a treatise for the church to show how each person who died had been led to this death by God. Surely there was something in each person's life that warranted such an untimely, violent death. "Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan." Unfortunately, Brother Juniper failed to show the divine plan and the church burned him at the stake as a heretic. He had succeeded in showing the humanity of each person in their story — how everyone is good and bad, not evil but not divine, not always humble and not always self-indulgent. In his desire to include all the details of a person's life, he unwittingly wrote how everyone bears difficult loss and anticipates joy, both spiritual and carnal. And then, it was his turn to contemplate his role in forces of good and evil. Others in the town are affected by the deaths and seek meaning in their own way. The bridge becomes a metaphor holding together the land of the living and the land of the dead. What are the bridges you must cross in your life?
I have returned to this book many times in my life. Each time I am reminded what good prose is, and what a good story is. I believe it helps me to be a better writer.