Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part two Mr. Bridge

As I mentioned before, I was going to talk about Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell in two separate but sequential entries due to their odd connected yet disconnected relationship. Mrs. Bridge was last time. Now we get to Mr. Bridge.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Bridge is written similarly to Mrs. Bridge. It’s got the similar small sections, covers the similar events of the same upper middle class white family in Kansas City in the early part of the twentieth century, and all that. The difference is now we see it all from Walter’s, Mr. Bridge’s, view.

A copy of the will was in the safe-deposit box, and though he knew every word of it he sometimes read it through, searching for possible points of contention. The logic and clarity of the will were pleasing to him; the measured cadence of the sentences he had composed was reassuring, as though the measure of his mind must be respected when it was read aloud at some future date. Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and by the children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

Only once had he shown her the contents of the box. Then he had pointed out an envelope containing five one-hundred-dollar bills to be used in case of emergency, and had unfolded a few certificates and gone over them with her so they would seem familiar; but he had minimized the total worth of the documents in the box. Women tended to behave curiously where money was concerned. She was not extravagant, at least she had not been extravagant so far; if anything she was quite the opposite, worrying mildly about the cost of almost everything. Still, change was in the nature of women and no good could come from letting her know his exact worth.

It is interesting how different a perspective we get in this from two people who are still so closely related. It’s the same family, the same white respectability of the era of the World Wars, but minor differences can yield big shifts.

Mr. Bridge is somewhat of a role in Mrs. Bridge than a person. In Mr. Bridge he is a real person, one of a relentless provider. Any time his family is in need, he redoubles his efforts to provide for them…regardless of what they actually need. He clings to the only things he knows. Often what they need is him as a person, and his drive to provide for them in response makes things worse. He dramatically fails his family and the same time that he is a dramatic success in serving his family.

Mr. Bridge was too exasperated to go back to bed. He paced through the house examining the doors and windows again. He thought of how often he had told his son to make certain the house was locked. It had been a waste of time. He returned to the bedroom, reached under the mattress, and pulled out the pistol. He had planned to give it to Douglas on his twenty-first birthday, but now he decided not to. He shifted the gun from one hand to the other, weighing it in his palm and fondling the knurled grip and the icy barrel. Twice a year he cleaned and oiled the gun, and occasionally he lifted a corner of the mattress to see if it was where it belonged. There was always a chance Harriet would steal it. He did not like the fact she knew about the fun. If she did take it and sell it or give it to some Negro in the North End there could be a great deal of trouble. It could very well be used in a holdup. She had been warned never to touch it, and each time he looked he found the gun in the same place; yet he could not forget that when Douglas was a child she had shown it to him.

The clock in the hall struck three times. He was surprised. An hour had passed since he went down stairs. He shoved the gun into the holster and slid it beneath the mattress. He hung his robe in the closet, stepped out of his carpet slippers, and lay down in bed carefully so as not to disturb his wife.

Connell’s characterization is just as impressive in Mr. Bridge as in Mrs. Bridge. The tiny points that bring each of the characters so wonderfully to life are so carefully and sparingly placed. Although, I was already familiar with most of these characters from Mrs. Bridge, so Connell did not have to do as much for them. Frankly, I liked Mrs. Bridge better. I think there were a few points where Mr. Bridge himself seemed a little off in his reactions to things. Mrs. Bridge never did that.

Bottom line? One probably should read Mr. Bridge if one is going to read Mrs. Bridge. However, the latter is more moving than the former…at least for me.

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Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.

 

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.

Wuthering Heights. A Day Late and a Dollar Short.

Up until now, Dave has been leading the way with the written words on here.  I just had the original idea and Dave helped make it happen.

Now, the reason above that I say that I am a day late and a dollar short is that Dave and I decided we would post on Wednesdays.  It is now 9:07 p.m. CST Thursday.  So, the day late.  And to round out the saying, I’m usually a dollar short on something.

Now onto Wuthering Heights!  by Emily Bronte.

I have been looking at Wuthering Heights for years, as I own an old copy of my mother’s.  I love old books, so even though I had not read it yet, I kept it on the shelf.  I kept saying I’d be reading it soon.  So, when Dave & I began this, I figured it was the perfect opportunity.  It meant I had to read it right?  The following authors listed it on their top ten.  Denise Gess, Jim Harrison, Alice Hoffman and Sue Monk Kidd.  I haven’t read Gess or Harrison, but have read both Hoffman and Kidd, and can see why Wuthering Heights would be in their top ten.  You can tell the influence the book had on both of them and their writing.

I don’t know why I’ve avoided Wuthering Heights so long.  I’ve read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre countless times.  I think I just have heard so much about it all my life that it was sort of like “eh”.  I wanted to write about what I have always been led to believe about Wuthering Heights, and the reality that is Wuthering Heights.  Some spoilers might follow for those of you that have not yet read this book.  I feel like though, since it was published over a hundred years ago, that I won’t be ruining too much.

Belief #1:  Wuthering Heights is the towering love story of Catherine & Heathcliff

Truth #1:  Wuthering Heights is a story about Heathcliff’s revenge on Catherine and those he feels wronged either herself or himself.  Heathcliff is an orphan found by Catherine’s father.  He is brought home and raised with Catherine, her brother Hindley, and the secondary narrator of the story (the primary narrator is a tenant of Heathcliff later whom Ellen tells the story to), Ellen Dean who started as a serving girl and then became housekeeper.  The father dotes on Heathcliff, and Hindley becomes jealous.  Catherine & Heathcliff become “thick as thieves” and are never far apart.  Then Catherine’s father dies.  Hindley becomes master of the house, and right away banishes Heathcliff to a servant’s role and makes Catherine & Heathcliff’s lives hell.  Time passes.  Catherine & Heathcliff spy on their neighbors, Isabella and Edgar Linton.  They are caught and Catherine twists/breaks her ankle and must rehab at the Lintons house.  Hindley sends his wife to make her into a little lady and separate her from Heathcliff.  More time passes.  Edgar begins courting Catherine.  Catherine decides to accept Edgar’s proposal even though her soul tells her no, that she should be with Heathcliff, but he is not a “gentleman” anymore.  She is telling Ellen this, and Heathcliff overhears.  He disappears for three years and mysteriously acquires a fortune.  He returns and Edgar & Catherine are married, and happy.   She dies after blaming him for her death.  He then sets about ruining her brother, her daughter, and Edgar.  He also, to spite the Lintons, marries Edgar’s sister Isabella who leaves him and has a son after doing so.  He ends up using his son in his machinations to further his revenge.

Belief #2:  Catherine & Heathcliff are romantic.  Sooo romantic.

Truth #2:  Catherine is a spoiled little brat.  In today’s world, she’d be that girl that would say to you (usually in a bar)that they say what they think, that they don’t care what people think.  Then they proceed to insult you.  Then when you get upset, they say they warned you that they do that.  That’s Catherine in a very simplified manner.  Heathcliff is a sadist, though he says it’s revenge he wants, he gets a sick enjoyment out of the pain and misery he causes those he is revenging.  In today’s world, he’d be that vision of George W Bush that people like to sustain that he was mad at Saddam because his daddy  didn’t soundly win in 92, so he manafactured stories about weapons of mass destruction and proceeded to annihilate Iraq and eventually Hussein.  That’s Heathcliff.

I did get a couple of surprises from Wuthering Heights:

Surprise 1:  I never had heard that it’s a slightly gothic ghost story.  At the beginning, the narrator (primary) is put up for the night in Catherine’s old room.  He commences reading some of her notes and books from when she was a girl.  He falls asleep and dreams that she is knocking at the window.  It’s actually a really creepy scene, I’ll quote;

“I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand”.

Creepy!

Then the end of the book (which that part, I won’t spoil as I’ve left the second half of it pretty much alone for those of you that have put off reading it as well) is really quite creepy as well.

Surprise 2:  It is so much more complex than just a story about Heathcliff and Cathy.  As I noted above, it becomes a story about Heathcliff’s revenge.  This effects more than just him and Cathy’s love.  It is so much less about love and so much more about the ripples we can all have on one another’s lives.

Surprise 3:  It is different than most books from that era I have read.  It’s more complex and deeply layered than a lot of others, including but not limited to her own sister’s book, Jane Eyre.

Surprise 4:  I think I’d like to read it again, as some of the beginning can only be truly understood after you have read the entire book.

So that’s Wuthering Heights.  Next time, I promise to be both a day on time and hopefully a dollar taller.