The Bridge of San Luis Rey
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
American author Thornton Wilder lived from 1897 to 1975. He wrote his most famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1927, when he was thirty years old. The novel is set in Peru in 1714. A certain primitive bridge that had been constructed by the Incas a hundred years earlier falls into the ravine below, killing the five people who happen to be on it at the time. The question the novel poses is this: Was the collapse of the bridge just a matter of “chance,” or was there some “design” to the deaths of the five victims?
Those who die in the bridge collapse are male and female, young and old:
- The Marquesa de Montemayor is an aristocratic woman, all alone in the world except for a daughter who marries and moves to Spain. The mother and daughter do not get along well when they’re in the same location, so they communicate by letter, between Peru and Spain. Since it is the eighteenth century, a letter takes six months to reach its destination. She and her servant girl, Pepita, die in the bridge collapse.
- Pepita is a girl from the convent whom the Marquesa de Montemayor takes as a companion.
- Esteban has an identical twin named Manual. They have been educated in the convent and become scribes, writing letters for people for pay. Esteban and Manual are so close they develop a secret language between them. When Manuel falls in love with a famous actress in the theatre named Camila Perichole, the relationship of the twins is tested. Manuel meets a sad fate before Esteban dies in the bridge collapse.
- Uncle Pio is an old man who works for Camila Perichole, as a kind of all-purpose servant and father figure. Camila Perichole isn’t very kind to Uncle Pio, but he persuades her to let him take her only son, Jaime, to Lima with him to educate him.
- Jaime is with Uncle Pio on the bridge when it collapses. He is the fifth victim of the collapse.
After the bridge collapse, Brother Juniper spends years investigating the lives of the five victims to try to make sense of the collapse and to ascertain if there was any design in the accident or if it was all purely chance. Of course, in the end he realizes he has wasted his time and effort. It is a conundrum, a question without an answer.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of the twentieth century masterpieces of American literature and ranks number 37 on The Modern Library List of the 100 Best Works of Fiction in English of the twentieth century.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp