i've been thinking about writing a review for mr. bridge (and one for mrs. bridge) for three years now. in the midst of reading and even after i am always overflowing with reaction to the books but it's been hell trying to restrain my thoughts. each time i've found i think so much about them that i spin out to my own context, considering the influences of culture and community and nature and nurture and then i think many outrageous things about the world and find it hard to spin it back down to midwestern america, let alone actually writing a review, let alone two!
and it's hard for me now to want to read one of these novels without reading the other because while they do stand as individual and distinct works (mrs. bridge's naive repression resonates very differently from mr. bridge's view of the proprieties of a white middle-class american dream) back-to-back they are magical, reflecting and echoing, each enriching the other, the two books making a magnificent literary marriage from one complicated one. published ten years apart (this one came out in 1969, ten years after mrs. bridge) they are such perfectly complementary portraits, perspectives of a mister and a missus who ostensibly shared a life. but i finally think i know what i want to say now, so do forgive me if you happen to stumble upon one and then the other of these reviews and see some repetition in my theme. heck, i may even reuse these opening paragraphs for both! :)
mr. bridge would want you to know that he is a devoted father and husband. he works very hard so his family will have all the advantages he did not, and so they will be very provided for when he is gone. he is very fastidious and very conservative. he has his own code of honour but what he tells you without telling you by telling you what he thinks, in this masterful book by evan s. connell, is that he's pompous, bigoted and opinionated and he thinks that makes him the right kind of american. it's the most amazing thing about mr. bridge, how intimately you get to know him -- all his aspects. and connell does it just that way, sketching him in, one vignette at a time, revealing the man by his actions and his words, in marvellously controlled, charming, engaging, and sometimes acerbic prose. each chapter reveals or compounds another aspect of this finely wrought character and his world: his family, his work, his employees, his club, his business associates -- he doesn't have any friends. mr. bridge can't breach his own distance and really? nothing gets out, and nothing comes in, nor does he really want it to. he feels he has done right by his family and has lived a productive and useful life.
mr bridge is a testament to an early twentieth century midwestern american man, to an era, a time that came before, in a community i could never have fit into, a place i've never really been able to comprehend. connell's portrait of mr. bridge is a fully-realized frankenstein who suffused me when i read his book. i felt very strongly in both my readings that these very WASP-y books finally helped me understand a worldview so outside my own understanding. i've never been able to learn the ability to remain composed, impassive, unemotional. i've often thought it might be nice to be stoic in person and also philosophy, to quell the storms of passion and empathy, to exchange them for stolid control, and the closest i think i might get is to step into mr. bridge's world and live a part of his life with him again. and even though his world is harsh and unfair, it is also funny and wise and mr. bridge himself is seductive is his arrogance. i copy the last two paragraphs of the novel in spoiler tags below. there's no grand reveal in these words but they complete his picture, and i often think of them, and at last, with compassion.
Mr. Bridge got to his feet reluctantly. He opened the book and held it for his wife, who sang in a pure, slender tone. The congregation sang "Joy to the World," and he sang a few phrases because he enjoyed the Christmas carols.
Yet while he was singing he reflected on the word "joy"--the archaic sound of this odd word, and its meaning. He reflected that he had occasionally heard people use this word. Evidently they had experienced joy, or believed they had experienced it. He asked himself if he ever had known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it because he understood the connotation, would be impossible without having experienced it. However, if he had once known joy it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called "rejoicing" after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There were many such feelings, but none of them should be called "joy". He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.