Over the past year or so I have stumbled upon two brilliant books, which, strangely enough, have a great deal in common. The first one, Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell, was featured on BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Open Book. I read it in one gulp and it immediately joined my favourite-books list.
The other, Stoner by John Williams, was featured in the newspaper as one of the great word-of-mouth bestsellers in Europe and is another fabulous read. Both were written by Americans and published half a decade ago, 1959 and 1965, respectively. The central themes, lives wasted, unhappy marriages and missed opportunities have a striking resemblance, as does the exquisite humour. Yet the stories are very different and I can highly recommend reading them both.
Mrs Bridge is the story of India Bridge who lives a privileged picture perfect housewife life, ruled by conventions and manners. Married to respectable and hard-working Walter Bridge with three children, Mrs Bridge judges other people ‘by their shoes and by their manners at the table.’ Connell’s satirical portrayal of 1920 to 1940s Middle America is hilariously funny, but also has a darker, timeless message.
The book is written in short, neat chapters, each discussing a domestic or social topic, reminiscent of an old fashioned etiquette book. We have ‘Never Speak to Strange Men’, ‘A Matter of Taste’ and ‘Guest Towels’. Mrs Bridge is striving for superficial perfection, and, by the standards of an etiquette book, she does succeed. In her relationships with her children and her husband, however, she fails miserably.
Mrs Bridge’s friend Grace Barron does question their conformist lives.
India, I have never been anywhere, done anything or seen anything. I don’t know how other people live, or think or even how they believe. Are we right? Do we believe the right things.
And Mrs Bridge makes some feeble attempts at expanding her horizons, but they always seemed to be interrupted by some domestic chore and it all just fizzles out. India just floats along, slightly uneasy about her empty life but incapable of doing anything about it. Meanwhile the years go by.
She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way – because she willed it to be so – her wants and her expectations were the same.
Although firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, the story of Mrs Bridge is a timeless reminder of the dangers of the pursuit of perfection at the expense of happiness and meaningful human relationships. A great book!
Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell published by Penguin Modern Classics, 187 pages.