The Bridges of Madison County

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The Bridges of Madison County

The Bridges of Madison County, first a book and then a film, remains controversial in popular culture, with people divided into vehement fans and foes of the sentimental love story. Written in 1992 by novice Midwestern writer Robert James Waller, the plot revolves around two lonely, middle-aged people—an Iowan housewife and a worldly photographer—whose paths cross, resulting in a brief but unforgettable love affair. A subplot opens the story, with the grown children of the female character, upon her death, finding a diary recounting the affair; thus, they get a chance to learn more about who their mother really was and her secret life. The book, residing somewhere between romance, literature, and adult fairy tale, holds a fascination for people because of the popular themes it explores: love, passion, opportunity, regret, loyalty, and consequence. As a result, the book has been translated into 25 languages; it topped Gone with the Wind as the best-selling hardcover fiction book of all time, and made its author, previously an unknown writer, into an overnight success. Finally, in 1995, it was made into a film (scripted by Richard LaGravenese) directed by Clint Eastwood, who temporarily shed his "Dirty Harry" persona to play the sensitive loner who woos a small-town housewife, played by Meryl Streep.

Other factors have contributed to the worldwide dissemination of The Bridges of Madison County. The simplistic prose and maudlin story have sparked a debate in and out of writer's circles as to whether the book should be characterized as "literature" or "romance." Some say, in the book's defense, that the prose style should not be judged harshly because the book is really story-driven and its themes, although trite, are universal. Yet others say that it is romance fiction disguised and wrongly praised as literature. The author says he prefers "ordinary people, the kind you meet in a checkout line at the hardware store." He chooses moments in which "the ordinary can take on rather extraordinary qualities." Peculiarly, the prose, when combined with the story, does seem to blend the ordinary with the extraordinary. Because of its enormous popularity, more people have read the book than if it had simply been categorized as a "romance," and that has helped to incite an ongoing and larger critique about how the book and its author should be perceived. The film also generated a similar, divided response in people: just as many seem to cry as well as laugh at its sad ending.

No one can deny that Robert James Waller has managed to present a story that deals with engrossing themes. People grow up with ideas of romantic love, nourished—especially in the United States—by the media and visions of celebrities engaged in storybook romances. Due to the uncanny nature of love, there is much room for people to fantasize, and fantasies are not usually practical. Because it is questionable just how much control individuals have over their lives, fate and destiny are appealing and common musings. Romantic love has dominated the subject matter of songs and stories for millennia, and continues to do so. What makes a story like the one in The Bridges of Madison County resonate is its attempt to portray the choices that people must make regarding their happiness, and the idea that fate can bring two unlikely people together.

One of the main characters—the woman—commits adultery, which is always a complicated and dramatically satisfying issue. In her case, she is an Italian immigrant who married an American and ended up in a small town in Iowa. She has kept her disappointment to herself because she loves her family, but she feels compromised, being more sophisticated than she lets on. For her, meeting Clint Eastwood's character and hearing stories of his travels reawakens her yearning for a more worldly life. Temporarily alone while her family is away, she is able to succumb to emotions that have been dormant in her. Both experience a passion requited on all levels—emotional and sexual—and end up falling powerfully in love. In the end, she chooses to stay with her husband (mainly because of her children), but does not feel guilty about having had the experience of the affair. He, in turn, walks away as well, respecting her choice and although they separate, their bond is present throughout their lives. The tragedy is complicated but satisfying (for dramatic purposes) in that although the reader wants the two to be together, people tend to be more attracted to yearning and regret (most everyone has an episode of lost love in their history) versus a happier ending; when people get what they want, it is often not as interesting.

—Sharon Yablon

Further Reading:

Waller, Robert James. Border Music. New York, Warner Books, 1998.

——. The Bridges of Madison County. New York, Warner Books, 1992.

——. Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend. New York, Warner Books, 1993.

Walsh, Michael. As Time Goes By: A Novel of Casablanca. New York, Warner Books, 1998.

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