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4.3 out of 5 stars38
4.3 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 31 January 2002
This beautiful little vignette (only 124 pages long)kept me in thrall from beginning to end. Full of stunningly accurate observations, expressed in the most gorgeous prose, this short novel cannot fail to captivate. Although it begins with a disaster (the collapse of the bridge in question), and focuses on the lives of the five fatalities, somehow it manages not to be overburdened by sorrow.
Each of the five, slightly eccentric, but heart-warming characters is exceedingly well drawn. Their biographies are apparently based on the writings of Brother Juniper who documented as much about them as possible in order to try and ascertain why this disaster befell them in particular. (This method was eventually to be his downfall as the conclusion of the novella indicates). Be that as it may, they are all united by virtue of the fact that none quite fit the norms of 18th century Peruvian society (although for differing reasons). And yet, there is a little of each of them in all of us. This book cannot come more highly recommended.
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Thornton Wilder is perhaps best known for his play, "Our Town," which is the staple of high school drama groups and this book, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I first read the book in high school, now more than 40 years ago and sadly chose it for its length - a short assignment! Some of the negative reviews of the book seem to be from these young, first time readers - I would have been among them on my first reading. Almost certainly you need some maturity (read: life experiences) to fully appreciate Wilder's wonderful, dense, evocative prose.

The year was 1714, the "Sun King," Louis XIV was still on the throne in France, and Peru was an established colony of Spain, when the bridge collapsed. One of the sub-themes of the book is the relationship of the colony with the mother country, Spain, and Peru's efforts to mature, in terms of the cultural and social life available. The central strength of the novel is Wilder's incisive portraits of four individuals: the physically ugly, lonely noveaux-riche, the Marquesa de Montemayor; Estaban, the sole survivor of twin orphans; and Uncle Pio, the wheeler-dealer who "trained" the actress Perichole. The first three fell to their deaths when the bridge collapsed, along with two others, Pepita, the assistant of the Marquesa, and Jaime, the son of Perichole. These two are not characterized in detail, and thus might be considered so much "collateral damage."

Examples of Wilder's succinct and meaningful prose are, in terms of the Archbishop: "A curious and eager soul was imprisoned in all this lard, but by dint of never refusing himself a pheasant or a goose or his daily procession of Roman wines, he was his own bitter jailer." Has schadenfreude ever been better defined that the reaction of the population to the knowledge that the glamorous actress Perichole had become disfigured by smallpox: "...henceforth any attention paid to her must spring from a pity full of condescension and faintly perfumed with satisfaction at so complete a reversal."?

The overall framework of the novel is the search for meaning in this accident, faithfully pursued by a Brother Juniper who investigated each of the characters and their connections with their relations and friends. For his efforts, the Catholic Church burned him at the stake for "heresy" since his conclusion was that it was "God's will" that they were chosen to be called "home." Wilder's own conclusion is equally unsatisfying: "There is a land of the living, and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

It was humbling to realize that Wilder wrote this book, with its intense character sketches when he was still under 30. The weakness, despite the Pulitzer, was the overall framework and his facile, trite conclusions as to meaning, in a universe devoid of same, despite our best efforts. Overall, a much better book to read in one's 60's than when one is 16.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 25, 2008)
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on 19 June 2011
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a delightful series of vignettes charting the doomed lives of five people in Peru. Wilder reaches dizzying heights of superlative telling in this book. His characters are lessons on how to write. His tragic backgrounds do not tear jerk nor offer crass emotional hooks, he designs as a master craftsman, easing each figure into the narrative with heart, warmth and skill.

Such colourful people inhabit these pages. The brilliance of Wilder's writing shines from every page. This is how writing should be done.

Get this book, read it and immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of Peruvian life that Wilder offers here. Tragic, heartfelt and ultimately doomed, yet uplifting for all that. Worth more than five stars, see for yourself.
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I found this a curious little book. In 1714 a rickety wooden bridge spanning a gorge on the route from Cuzco to Lima collapsed killing five people. This tragic event was witnessed by a monk, Brother Juniper, who decides to investigate the lives of the five and see if there was a reason that God chose them to be killed at that moment.

The next three chapters are devoted to explaining the lives of the five (three in great detail, two remain much more shadowy). There is no obvious reason that they have been "chosen" for sacrifice - except perhaps that they are all fall somewhat outside the patterns of behaviour for the times?

The book is filled with interesting snippets: "There was something in Lima wrapped up in yards of violet satin from which protruded a great dropsical head and two fat pearly hands; and that was its archbishop." And he also tells us: "Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor could really suffer."

Much of the language Wilder uses seemed very archaic. Perhaps this was deliberate to tune in with the early 18th century but it seemed odd when one considers The Bridge of San Luis Rey was written in the same decade as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and The Painted Veil.

I enjoyed reading this book but I did find the final reasoning a bit trite - cod psychology about the power of love.
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on 20 February 2011
This book is a beautifully written masterpiece (but most know that) - however the kindle text is flawed by misprints that wouldn't be permissable in a printed book and especially of such a carefully drawn novel like this... it's disappointing because this is the first Kindle text I've read.
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on 15 August 2010
I have returned to this novel many times; there is something so classic in its examination of an accident - is it chance, fate or God's will? It is no surprise to discover that the author's father was a Calvinist, and that his son felt the need to question his father's lens on life. The story is simple: a Peruvian bridge collapses in 1714, and five people are unlucky enough to be hurled to their death. A pure-hearted Franciscan friar, Brother Juniper, is a witness to the disaster. He is so troubled by these random deaths that he tries to investigate why God would allow these five to die. Of course, his investigation throws up several very different lives, with their usual mix of flaws, but what shines through is the centrality of love to all of them. Hence the novel's famous lines, oft-quoted, "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." This is a novel to cherish.
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on 9 January 2014
In between books I planned to read, I picked up a copy of this in a second hand booksellers in Tokyo, without having heard of it and without a great deal of expectation. When I finished reading it the other day I felt that I had stumbled upon a little treasure of a book.

The premise is fascinating - was there any reason, divine or otherwise, for the death of a group of five strangers who happened to be crossing a bridge when it suddenly collapsed in 18th century Peru. The structure is interesting, with five chapters devoted to the entertaining life stories of each of the victims, and at the end a touching conclusion about their deaths, and the nature of death itself. Thornton Wilder's prose is pleasantly masculine (without being macho), but embroidered with fine descriptions of character and place.

The final paragraph, in which a wise old nun contemplates on the significance of the accident is among the tenderest and most moving pieces of writing one could hope for. All in all, a curious, haunting little gem of a book that is widely known in America but appears to have been overlooked in Britain. The whole book can be devoured in the space of two or three hours - and you will find them three hours well spent.
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on 24 October 2011
This book is quite modern in its structure and style, in the sense that there is no single plot. It is an exploration of the individual lives of five people in eighteenth century Peru, who die together when a bridge collapses. A priest attempts to find some sense of religious purpose and meaning in the tragedy, but though he is the starting point of the narrative, he fades completely from the action until the final pages.

The power of the book lies in the compassion and insight with which Wilder illuminates the lives, passions, faults and virtues of the characters. He makes no attempt to judge them, only to bring them to life on the page. He writes with a simple, direct elegance that makes reading a positive pleasure.

Many modern writers attempt this kind of multi-stranded, character-based approach to the novel, but in my opinion they often lack an emotional involvement with their characters and burden themselves with an opaque, elaborate prose style. The result can be rather dry and forbidding.

I found this book to be a glorious exception. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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on 2 February 2012
This short book is different from most in that the subjects discussed are not unusual or different but the idea that fate decided that they would all be at the same place at the same time is an interesting viewpoint. The notion that the lives the people lived led them to this point where they were all together and died due to a bridge that collapsed and that there was some meaning to it is open to philosophical debate. The five characters are described in detail and the lives they were leading and the preceding events that lead up to the crossing of the bridge are explained but you are left to decide for yourself whether there was any significance to their deaths. Was it simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time or was it payback for previous bad decisions they made? An interesting way of looking at the events - that actions in life can change fate - 'you reap what you sow' - an enjoyable book which I am glad I read - it made me think!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 April 2009
A clever, thought-provoking short novel. The Bridge of San Luis Ray is set in 18th century Peru and focusses on the lives of five people killed when the bridge of the title collapses. The theme of the novel is fate; whether there is an appointed time and place to die ordained by God, or if simple misfortune strikes at random.

The five characters are very different from each other, although their lives do interlink via some of the other characters. Each is a well drawn, fascinating character and the backstory of each gives a colourful insight into life in Spanish colonial South America.

Although it's too short to have a massive emotional impact, it is certainly a book that punches above its weight and leaves a lasting impression on the reader despite its brevity. It's well written and accessible, and the structure and pacing are perfect. Overall, an intriguing novella well worth reading.
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