Thoughts on The Bridge of San Luis Rey

I’ve just finished reading Thornton Wilder‘s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In a thoughtful essay on the Haiti earthquake, Michael Cook refers to the book’s disaster, which took the lives of five people, and concludes that suffering is not meaningless if we consider that every life – even if suddenly and tragically ended – can be considered “a perfect whole.”

Intrigued and moved by these musings, and never having read The Bridge of San Luis Rey before, I went to the public library in search of it. It took me about three days to finish. Once I got to the end, I went back to the beginning and read it again. It is one of those many-layered books that will surprise you with new meaning each time you read it.

Wilder’s writing style reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, except that it is not quite as confusing or ambiguous. (Nor does Wilder ramble on for hundreds of tedious pages. When I found The Bridge, I was surprised by its slimness, less than 150 pages in all.) The story reads like a fable, replete with hyperbole and irony, and crowded with whimsical and colourful characters: an eccentric old woman penning endless letters to her daughter; not one but two scornful and beautiful women; not one but two handsome young men; a poor and lonely little girl; a poor and lonely little boy; a wise and mysterious old man; an Abbess who goes about tirelessly doing good; a sea captain who roams the world; and the saintly and simple monk who serves as their biographer. However, in their passions and affections they are all too human. Each one hungers for a love that for some reason or another is beyond reach.

Five of these characters are plunged to their deaths with the breaking of the bridge. Most of the book deals with the paths each of these characters took that led him or her to the bridge at that precise moment in time when it collapsed. But to me, the most beautiful part of the book comes at the end, where we see how those left behind try and come to terms with love and chances lost forever, and discover to their astonishment that in spite of everything, they still get a second shot at redeeming grace.

“In love,” the Abbess tells the remorseful Condesa, “our very mistakes don’t seem to be able to last long.” This is the very heart of the book. At face value, each life researched by Brother Juniper was a long string of mistakes: greed, pride, selfishness, the folly of yearning for the impossible. But in the end, it can truly be said that every person is more than just the sum of his mistakes; we are all made “perfect wholes” by love.


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