Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge - Evan S. Connell

Whenever the subject of underappreciated books comes up in interviews, it seems it is obligatory to cite Evan S. Connell and his Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). Together, the two novels make up one of the most convincing portraits of a family - any time, anywhere. Mrs. Bridge has what I consider to be one of the great openings of contemporary literature:

"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."

Indeed, India does not live a life full of exotic adventure, as she is a housewife in 1940s Kansas City. With Mr. Bridge (Walter) always at work and her household run by a black servant, Harriet, Mrs. Bridge is often at loose ends. A clever, loving, constantly worried woman, she has been failed by her upbringing and her era, and she lives a pathetically comic existence, one of isolation, shallow interests and desperate boredom. Though she is rarely able to overcome her nervousness and act on them, she still has good instincts - which is more than can be said for Mr. Bridge. The first book gives workaholic Walter a pretty hard time, and I think the longer second book was designed to show how he is equally caught in the role society has given him. Although it ends less neatly because (**spoiler alert**) Walter dies, I think it is in many ways a finer achievement than the more famous first novel.

India and Walter have three children, each one a fabulously drawn character. Unpredictable, wilful and prone to long silences, Ruth, the eldest, reminds me of Henny Pollit, the crazy, witchy mother of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, another fabulous novel about family. Dark, unkempt and petulantly sexy, she is her father's secret favourite. Pale and stouter, Caroline or "Cork" is her mother's obvious favourite and the cleverest and most ambitious of the children. She is also the most demanding and dependant on her parents, unscrupulous when their backs are turned and the odd woman out when it comes to the siblings. Douglas, the youngest and nobody's favourite, is a genial troublemaker who is largely indifferent to family politics and manages to become the most well-adjusted of the children.

I have never seen the movie, which stars my favourite real-life husband-and-wife acting team, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It is supposed to be wonderful, and perhaps I will rent it tonight.


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