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4.3 out of 5 stars
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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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 11 January 2001
I first heard about this book when it was reviewed on BBC Radio 4 as I Alfa-Romeo-ed my way home from work.. the reviewers rhapsodised over it.
Its a tiny book, and I read it at a sitting in about one and a half hours, and haven't been able to get it out of my head since. Sad, beautiful and haunting, and yet also hopeful and (dreadful phrase) heart-warming. Although about as different in every way as it is possible to be, it somehow reminded me of J G Farrell at his best.
Wilder is a wordsmith of rare ability, building extraordinary edifices with words, although his perhaps over-mannered style might grate with some.
Suffice to say, I loved it, and have kept going back to re-read parts. Highly recommended.
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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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VINE VOICEon 26 March 2013
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 14 July 2004
'The Bridge...' focuses on a disaster in 18th century Peru, in which a bridge over a ravine collapses sending five people to their deaths. The tragedy prompts a priest, Brother Juniper, who had himself narrowly avoided being caught up in the disaster, to question why those five had been chosen to die and others, including himself, survived. He sees it as a natural experiment for testing God's plans, and, ultimately, a key to understanding the way in which He works. The book is a synopsis of the priest's investigation into the lives of the five victims and, ultimately, where the priest's own questions lead him.
The investigations into the five lives are nicely retold here, each one offering suggestions about why that particular victim may have been chosen, but each differing from the previous. Wilder's prose is thoughtfully constructed and his characters well realised, although each is a little caricatured in order to make his point (as is perhaps necessary in a book this length). The Marquesa with her wounded maternal feelings, Pepita, with her self-loathing, Estaban with his obsessive brotherly love, Pio with his excesses and Don Jaime with his innocence all seem to hint at a solution to God's plan, but ultimately serve to confuse and disorientate. The fate of Juniper himself is probably the only true clue the priest possesses.
So why only three stars? I don't know if it was the subject matter, the shortness of the book or Wilder's style, but the reading of this left absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. I did enjoy it, but it failed to move me and fails to haunt me, as the blurb promised. Perhaps this says more about me and my expectations of a book covering this subject, but I didn't find Juniper's conclusions and fate particularly surprising or thought provoking. Perhaps the shortness of the book meant I by-passed the point, but this isn't a work that I will be revisiting anytime soon.
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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 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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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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One of the great spiritual conundrums we all face is why one person dies while another lives. Airplane crashes, violent public events, and unexpected heart attacks in young people draw our attention to this question.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is probably the most elegant and moving expression of that question. Anyone who wants to develop her/his spirituality will find it satisfying and heartwarming to think about this story.
If you have never read this book, you are missing an opportunity to be able to discuss this story with others. Even people who have read relatively little great fiction have usually read The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
The story has little wasted verbiage, and gives you plenty to think about. I encourage you to read this little, but mighty book.
You should also recommend it to young people you know. They can begin to discover a love of great literature through this book.
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