Revisiting The Bridges of Madison County

Part of my work as a novelist is to ask myself this question: what makes a good story? What makes it compelling? What makes me want to read – and reread – a novel?

I asked myself this question not long ago, as I drove down the streets of Los Angeles, scanning the street posters for the touring musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which played here in December and January. I recalled having read the novel some twenty years ago, not long after watching the movie adaptation.

My first thought, as I scan the multiple street posters, is that it’s a damn good title. It is, in fact, a magical title – one of those titles that stays with you. But what is it about the story that resonates – so that it was made into a Broadway musical and, before that, a feature film and, before that, a hugely popular international bestseller?

I decide to reread the novel. “Ah, yes,” the librarian says, when I ask for the book, “a classic.” My first thought is, “Really? A classic? Is it old enough to be a classic? Is it good enough to be a classic?” But, then, if the librarian thinks it’s a classic, he’s probably not alone in his estimation. I take home a hardcover copy, published by Time Warner, photographs by the author, Robert James Waller. At the time, Waller lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He now lives on a farm in Texas.

I start reading the novel. It begins: “There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.” My response is, “What did I just read?” I still don’t know. I read on.

The wraparound story, which begins and ends the novel, is that, after the death of their mother, Francesca Johnson, her son and daughter discover papers and journals detailing her brief love affair in 1965 with Robert Kincaid, a traveling photographer, which took place while her children, and her husband of 18 years, were away at a state fair. The son and daughter decide to hire an author they’ve heard about to write their mother’s story. After some resistance, the author agrees.

I’ve heard that Henry James got story ideas from anecdotes picked up at dinner parties, but I can’t quite imagine this particular situation, and wonder why the author thought it added to the story. I read on.

The story itself – at about 36,000 words – is scarcely more than a novella. Each chapter is introduced with large type and a photo of a covered bridge. The Italian-American housewife, Francesca, meets Robert, the National Geographic photographer, when he stops at her Iowa farmhouse to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges. They fall in love. After four days, they part. I pause in my reading to wonder at Waller’s naming “Robert,” the attractive photographer, after himself. I read on.

The writing style strikes me as that of someone intent on lifting this simple story (and I love simple stories) to the level of exalted literary prose – and not quite succeeding. I try, as I read, to understand this disconnect. What would have made the writing better, more believable? I like the story. I’ve written stories about instantaneous attraction between a man and a woman. Perhaps it’s the author’s reaching for the sublime when the reality is all that needs to be told.

Francesca says of Robert, “God, what was it about him! He was like some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet and dropped off at the end of her lane.” I pause while I contemplate this line and, among other things, the use of the word “drafted.” He says to her, when they are making love, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” I ask myself, who would say this while making love? The author likes this line so much he repeats it in the letter Francesca writes to her children.

At any rate, I read the novel, finish it, and enjoy the epilogue, entitled “Interview with ‘Nighthawk’ Cummings,” a black musician whom the pretend author meets, and who provides some affirming insights into the character of Robert Kincaid. Unlike many of the overwrought passages in the novel, the interview seems simple and real, like the underlying story itself.

So now, having reread this “classic” novel, what do I think of it?

Although somewhat overwritten, sometimes clunky, The Bridges of Madison County is enough of a story at its source to sell in the millions, to be the stuff of a good movie, and to inspire a fine musical score. There is something iconic in the story, some nugget of truth that is felt by its readers, its moviegoers, and the theatre-going public – something that transcends the limitations of the writing, and soars.

Born as a novel in 1992, visualized as a movie in 1995, then resurrected as a beautifully scored musical in 2014, The Bridges of Madison County continues to resonate because so many of us, critics and skeptics as well as the susceptible, still want to believe that love, even well into and beyond the middle of our lives, even after our lives are supposedly set in cement, can rescue us.

And that, dear reader, includes me.

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