Saturday, November 05, 2011

Vignettes from the Middle Century

Mrs. Bridge: A Novel
Mrs. Bridge: A Novel 

"She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting.  But waiting for what?  She did not know." 

This is a beautifully written novel. Built through a mosaic of vignettes and episodes in the life of the titular character and her family, the novel gently limns the world of the aptly named Mrs. Bridge. She is a part of the generation that tries to hold on to the past during the era between the wars. It is not immediately clear that her family is living through the depression, although early in the novel the hard work of her husband is emphasized, it is hard work that pays off in a better life for Mrs. Bridge and the family. Toward the end of the book, their son Douglas heads off to WWII, signalling an end to an era. While the senior Bridges are tradition bound and deeply conformist, their children and their society are changing rapidly. Evan Connell paints a sympathetic but fairly condescending portrait of Mrs. Bridge as she fights to hold back the tide of these changes. She struggles to preserve proprieties and appearances as her three children grow increasingly rebellious at the stifling social conventions that she seeks to force upon them.
Meanwhile, as the children grow away from her, and with Mr. Bridge completely focused on his legal work, Mrs. Bridge begins to sense an emptiness in her own life. At one point, a friend who later takes her own life asks : "Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairy tales--the ones who were all hollowed out in back?" This is pretty clearly Connell's point in the book, that Mrs. Bridge, however likable, is indeed hollow, that she is all deference to her husband, service to her children, and conformity to public mores, with no room left over for a unique and genuine person. He conveys this message with great humor and no little understanding, but it can't help but be a pretty harsh indictment of her essentially wasted life.
Then there are two scenes with Mr. Bridge, one where, having gone to their club to celebrate their anniversary, he refuses to leave the dinner table as a tornado approaches. The twister does indeed miss them, but the episode suggests the solidity of Mr. Bridge and of their marriage, both unyielding even to forces of nature :
"The tornado, whether impressed by his intransigence or touched by her devotion, had drawn itself up into the sky and was never seen or heard of again."

And in the most moving scene, Mrs. Bridge, despite having not cooked in years, tries to make Mr. Bridge's favorite dessert, pineapple bread, and biffs it horribly, Mr. Bridge gently tells her, "Never mind", and the next day brings her a dozen roses. Though Mr. Bridge is rarely even present in the book, these episodes capture the strength and essential goodness of the marriage.
Finally, though the children move away, even move quite far away, the most pleasant thoughts of the more rebellious daughter are of home and the other daughter returns whenever there's trouble in her own ill-advised marriage. And the son, Douglas, grows up to be a man very much like his father. They, like Mrs. Bridge, and like the author himself, seem to realize that though the life that the Bridges have made may at first seem emotionally stunted, overly circumscribed, and unfulfilling, upon further reflection, there is something powerfully compelling about it.
This book is terrific, by turns moving and funny and heartbreaking - there are many small moments of humor that both lighten and enliven the story. But in the end, the Bridges come off much better than they first appear, and forty years later they look better still. Would that we had a bridge back to the simple values they represent.

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