The anti-small town and cynically confused "Bridges of Madison County"
I finished the book "Bridges of Madison County", after having picked it up for $1 about six weeks or so ago, putting it down and deciding yesterday to finish it. I liked it in the beginning and up to the early part of the passionate affair, and thought maybe there was something more enriching to this book than critics and supporters identified. I had, for example, liked the references Waller makes to various artists and historical events, and the manner in which he describes a photographer's process of turning photos into art.
However, by the time I finished the book, I found most people (apart from one or two Amazon critics) had missed the utter meanness and cynicism behind this book. It is first a cruel sort of attack on small town America. The book's narration reeks of resentment of the people who live there, through the lens of the female character, and also the narrator's incessant harping about the citizens' response to the photographer showing up to take photos of its bridges on the basis of his "long hair." One may compare Waller's drive-by novella poorly against Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street," which is far more kind and balanced with respect to small town America than the usual banter about that book so often implies. Second, the book makes Francesca into a heroine when she has chosen poorly and obviously punished her family with an eccentric distance after her passionate four day affair with Robert Kincaid, the photographer who blows in and out of town on his National Geographic assignment to photograph the bridges in the small towns of Iowa. Third, the author uses lush language of passionate and abiding love for two people who were themselves unable to understand that each had merely turned the other into an archetype and then withdrew after the torrid four day affair from any further attempt at human compassion for the rest of their lives. Francesca never gave her husband a chance to help their relationship and assumed that her husband's plaintive lament on his deathbed about not satisfying her was that he must have found the hidden manilla envelope that disclosed the affair, as opposed to her consistent and heartless withdrawal from him and the family following the affair. For Kincaid, Francesca represented the ideal of home and hearth that he studiously avoided in his world travels and he turned her into the Madonna-Whore that such men of the world claim however inarticulately is their ideal. Neither lead character ever seems to contemplate that if she had gone off with him, her ignorance of photography and her tiring of a wanderlust which she showed little true enthusiasm for would have exposed that theirs was a short term lustful affair, not a basis for a sustained long term relationship.
For women across the nation who were so taken with this book, it occurs to me that we men should be far more sensitive to women's romantic desires because this book is about a psychic pain women may have when they are artistic and are married to non-artistic men, and women who live in smaller communities who desire what they perceive to be a more exciting urban lifestyle. What is further troubling to me is the confusion in the narrator that may be deliberate between short term lust and longer term loving relationships. This confusion, which again may be deliberate and hence cynical, reminded me of Philip Roth's inability as a narrator to realize that his lead character in "Goodbye Columbus" was a jerk, not a hip guy at all (I say this in discussing what Roth thought when he wrote it, not what he may have subsequently learned in later years, particularly after Claire Bloom schooled him about his misogyny). Waller's book is again not worthy of the term "novel" but at best is a disjointed novella that gives glimpses of events, and even then, reveals the writer is unable to or does not want his readers to recognize what is in fact occurring in what he attempts to describe.
I had picked up the book, after avoiding it for years, because I was and remain so taken with the score for the Broadway version of the book and later film, which score was written by a person I consider a most exciting and creative mind in Broadway today, Jason Robert Brown. His explaining his love for the story and desire to write the songs for the play had led me to think, well, I had better give the book a chance, and as I said, my initial view of the first fifty or so pages was very positive. It is just, as I kept reading, I began to sense something wrong, and by the end, I was frankly appalled. One may still see Brown's explanation of what drew him to the book, but I realized my deep middle aged sensibility, and having observed many other marriages including my own, allowed me to see something more than Brown's youthful and artists' perspective was able to comprehend in what the also older Waller was missing and may in fact have been exploiting.