Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Book Review! Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, Jr.

Hello there!  Happy spring to all.  It's the perfect 70 degree day to sit out on our porch and read but seeing as our porch furniture is still under a tarp and I just finished a fantastic book I'm content sitting in the living room tapping away on my computer.

Have you ever read a book that was so enthralling you didn't want it to end?  Mrs. Bridge is one such book.  It was written in 1959 by Evan S. Connell, Jr.  From the research I've found on line this was his first novel and his most acclaimed.  It lost the National Book Award to Goodbye Columbus, another fantastic book in my opinion.  Here is a link to an article published shortly after Connell's death which details his career.

The story is written as a serious of connected scenes.  Few are more than three or four pages.  Something about this format made this book easy to digest.  (It was also helpful to read in the ER with my daughter - all the nurses and doctor's stopping in.  Darling daughter is fine...)  Being a bit of a wordy writer myself I was impressed that Connell could say so much with so few words.  His choice of dialog conveyed such powerful insight into each characters' mindset, even for those  characters who say very little.

I found myself keeping a notepad by my bedside to jot down unfamiliar word choices while reading this book.  I probably should know more than I do but I also couldn't help but see how much our language has changed in 56 years.  Has anyone out there used trenchantly in a sentence recently?   Not me.  Even though I now know the definition.  :)

So now let's talk about this heartwarming story.  It starts very simply.  "Her first name was India..."  Then quickly we learn that she is expected to marry, meets Walter Bridge, and then we see her as a young newlywed lying awake watching her husband sleep and feeling uneasy about the future.  This all happens in less than two pages.  The next chapters describe the Bridge's life as each of their three children come along.  Mr. Bridge works a lot and Mrs. Bridge takes care of the home.  Many of these scenes of domestic life are lovely.  It's American suburbia at its best.  Mrs. Bridge has very specific lessons to teach her three children about their behavior and what is and is not appropriate.  When her young daughter Carolyn (Nicknamed "Corky"- how adorable is that??) answers the door and announces that the cleaning "lady" is there Mrs. Bridge gently explains that she is the "cleaning woman".  "A lady is someone like Mrs. Arlen or Mrs. Montgomery", India's friends.

Connell uses these scenes to create a life for the Bridge family that includes their friends, their children and their children's friends, and their country club suburban life.  That is not to say that any of the characters were shallow or phoney or that there were no problems.  There are strange neighbors, uncomfortable social situations, and mental health concerns but Mrs. Bridge handles it all as pleasantly as pie. Connell's word choice and sentence structure create the easy feeling of a bygone era.  The story takes place in Kansas City during the 1930's and early 1940's.  None of the despair of the Great Depression is a part of the Bridge's life in the Country Club "district".   Perhaps Mr. Bridge is worried but he keeps it to himself.  He is usually at work, often staying at the office, or is behind a newspaper responding to India's attempts at conversation with few decisive words assuring her that everything will be all right.  Mr. Bridge also raises the children from behind the newspaper, saying to his son Douglas, "You'll express yourself when I say you can." in response to Douglas telling him how an undisciplined neighborhood boy's parents encourage their son to express his personality.  There's a dark humor that Connell has planted here in suburbia but it's no Lifetime movie.  When Mr. Bridge is at the office he seems to really be working.

The story follows the family as the children grow, move out (The eldest moves to New York rarely coming back to Kansas City.), and lead their own lives.  What impressed me so much is how Connell conveys India's boredom and self-doubt.  He describes how Harriet, the maid, does all the cooking and cleaning so India has nothing much to do.  She questions her purpose and expresses "the problem with no name"  a few years before Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963.  Although it is possible that Connell had read one of Friedan's published articles in the late '50s on the subject in preparation for writing Mrs. Bridge, I had to remind myself that a man wrote these words.  They were so on point.

The book's ending is a bit sudden.  So much that I went back to the library to peek at another copy to make sure some of the pages hadn't come out of my copy, being an original 1959 edition.  I also took a look at Mr. Bridge, the sequel Connell wrote in 1969.  The book tells the same story but from the view of Walter Bridge, India's husband.  Connell's writing style totally changed and while the chapters were still short I wasn't drawn into the story.  I couldn't tell if Connell was trying to write in a more masculine way to channel Walter's personality or if he just lost the feeling of the characters.  In any case I left the book at the library.

I highly recommend Mrs. Bridge to anyone who is interested in vintage domestic life.  I came across it wandering thru the stacks at my local library but you may be able to buy the book locally or on Amazon.  The movie, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, came out in 1990 starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  Our library had copies of both books with updated covers with scenes from the movie.

If you've read Mrs. Bridge or Mr. Bridge please share your thoughts.  I'd love to hear what you think. And has anyone seen the movie?  I'm planning on it!

Thanks for reading.