The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder is short. That redeems it. It has been showered with accolades—e.g., the Pulitzer Prize and spot 37 on The Modern Library’s Top 100 novels of the 20th century. At the risk of being accused of heresy—and the attendant burning at the stake—I’ll note that this book strikes me as overrated. Not vastly overrated—it is good, I am glad I read it, and I can imagine rereading it someday (it is short, after all)—but, overrated nonetheless.
The book poses a question—and a quick Google search reveals that posing said question was Wilder’s sole intention in writing the book. The question, in Wilder’s words: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?” Now that is a good question, and one well worth asking and answering—or attempting to answer. And it is the complete failure in that last regard that seriously mars this book. Wilder doesn’t even attempt to answer the question. As he explained, it is enough to ask the question well. But, the question is asked well in the one sentence formulation. What does the novel add?
The story is about five people who die when a bridge collapses. A priest set out to prove that this was all for the best, that it is evidence for the existence of a Divine Plan. The book then looks at the lives of each of the five people who died, and we are left with the question of whether these deaths look like part of a bigger plan or whether they were simply random happenstance. The lives are constructed in such a manner that there is no answer to that question. I suspect that the book is further written so that one can give high school seniors the following assignment: “Were the deaths in Wilder’s novel part of an overall plan or not? Explain your answer using specific evidence from the novel.” That essay question is a good one for this book because I think it would be a simple matter to write a convincing essay for each side.
Writing a novel which is even-handed enough to allow for both answers to be given is an impressive feat. But, does that make it a Great Book? I don’t think so. This is a work of fiction, after all. The answer to the Big Question within the novel may or may not be the same as the answer to the question in Reality. And Wilder’s deliberate lack of an answer to the question means that there is nothing to learn from this novel. It allows one to simply project one’s prior beliefs into the novel. There is nothing here to prompt a new thought or to test one’s faith. In the end, the best this novel can accomplish is to induce a false sense of certainty: “See, I knew I was right in my beliefs because I can prove that my belief can be supported in Wilder’s novel.”
Now if this book was long, it would have been a waste of time. But, it is short (as noted above) and Wilder writes well. He sketches out the lives neatly, succinctly and in a compelling fashion. The lives are intertwined, and thus the novel is a nice portrait of a town. I enjoyed reading it, but was left unsatisfied. That’s faint praise, but praise nonetheless.