Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is an excellent novel that won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize, was listed as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century by the American Modern Library in 1998, and was included by Time Magazine in the “Time 100 Best English language novels from 1923 to 2005”.

This book is not just a stuffy old book, but a part of our modern culture. It was referenced by Tony Blair in a memorial service for the victims of September 11th and was also referenced by both Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson in 2007 after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse (according to my friends at Wikipedia).

My Engineering Review:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the story how improper bridge maintenance led to structural failure of a bridge in eighteenth century Peru, killing five people in the process.

Plot Summary:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a wonderful novel that is set up very uniquely. It starts with the fall of the Bridge of San Luis Rey, an accident that kills five people. A monk, Brother Juniper, decides to research these five people to determine why this tragic accident happened to these five particular people. The book then breaks into three sections that detail the lives of three of the victims.

The Marquesa de Montemayor is a tragic, unstable woman. She is estranged from her daughter, Dona Clara, who lives in Spain. She writes beautiful letters to her daughter that become literary masterpieces as they pass through the ages. Estaban is a twin, who has experienced tragedy and decides to a life at sea. Uncle Pio is a man of all trades who trained a young girl, Camilla, to become a great actress. These people all lived fascinating, quite different lives, but they were all struck down by the tragic accident.

The last section of the novel is a wrap-up of the characters that these people loved and of Brother Juniper’s research.

My thoughts:
I loved this novel. It was very beautifully written. It searched for the meaning of “acts of God.” Does God strike down some people because they deserved it, or is it all random? We hear about accidents all of the time. This put a face to five people who would have been nameless statistics in a tragic accident. Although fictional, it made me think about other people that are just blips in the news in accidents.

I also loved Camilla, the beautiful actress that was also the mistress of the Viceroy. She was not one of the victims, but she was in some way connected to each victim. Overall through the novel, it painted a very interesting picture of this woman.

My favorite quotes:
1. “Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.” Brother Jupiter’s main thesis that he tries to prove by researching the accident victims.

2. “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do no lose a feather that has not been brushed by the finger of God.

3. “ . . .another was the scientist Azuarius whose treatise on the laws of hydraulics was suppressed by the Inquisition as being too exciting.”

Too exciting? Hydraulics? Wow – hydraulics is my main passion as an engineer, I have never read anything in a novel relating to this before!

4. “She saw that the people of this world moved with about in an armour of egotism, drunk with self-gazing, athirst for compliments, hearing little of what was said to them, unmoved by accidents that befell their closest friends, in dread of all appeals that might interrupt their long communion with their own desires.”

Wow – when was this book published, 1927? This could describe our society today!

5. “The discrepancy between faith and facts is greater than generally assumed.”

In other words, don’t try to proof faith with facts . . . you are missing the point of faith!

6. “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the sixth and final novel in my reading for The Classics Challenge. I loved it and highly recommend it to any lovers of literature. The author, Thornton Wilder, is best known for his play, Our Town, and for winning three Pulitzer prizes, including one for this book. Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the capital of my fair state. Therefore, I am counting him as a Literary Local.

Book Source: I bought this book at a used book sale or Antique store as some point in the distant past. I am glad the Classics Challenge came along and finally convinced me to take it off the dusty shelf and read it. I was not disappointed. My edition is a beautiful old edition from 1928. I love old books!


  1. I love old books, too. This sounds like a truly beautiful novel. You chose some excellent quotes!

  2. I love classics that have so much to say about life today. Congrats on finishing your challenge!

  3. I've wanted to read this for years, Laura, and your review has encouraged me to get my act together. By the way, congratulations on finishing the Classics Challenge!

  4. What a great review!! This books sounds so fascinating!! I will definitely be adding this one to my list!!