Let’s get this straight. I don’t read the authors advertised in the back of this book: Maeve Binchy, Diana Gabaldon, Rosie Thomas. I was lent The Bridges of Madison County by my friend Nasim who said the book changed her life. She said she was at a crossroads in her life and the book taught her about “being able to love someone even if you’re not with them.” So I assume, from the trajectory of the book, that she chose responsibility over passion. Books like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and, more relevant to this discussion, Sister Carrie show that traditionally women who’ve gone from the straight and narrow have had tragic ends. Francesca Johnson doesn’t end tragically but in a way that makes the book all the more poignant. I’ll admit it to you: I really liked the book and it almost made me cry. If that makes me a sentimental sap then so be it.
I think a good argument could be made that the book is an adherent to a new school of Naturalism. I studied this short-lived genre in a fair bit of detail during two courses in my undergrad degree, so when I say that I at least hope I know what I’m talking about. Because the book is so short, the situation so mundane, it would require the tone of Naturalism—where every detail is reported (with general neutrality) in order to form a picture rather than add incidents to a narrative plot. Because BoMC is a romance, it can’t be purely Naturalistic as it dives headlong into describing tender and romantic acts between the protagonists in a clearly biased way. There isn’t a surplus of adjectives, but every object or observance is recorded.
Perhaps you have to be a in a certain mood to appreciate the book as well, for the description to cross over from the Naturalistic to the sensual. Francesca Johnson is reawakening from a deep sleep of comfort and quietness when Robert Kincaid shows her detail and sensuality of a life she has missed since she left Naples during the War. Her hand lay quietly upon him. She could feel the muscle running from his neck along his shoulder, just back of his collarbone. She was looking down on the thick gray hair, neatly parted. Saw how it drifted over his collar. Perhaps I would have found the book’s unrelenting sentimentality mawkish were my own personal circumstances at the moment not receptive. It’s hard to say. I did find the descriptions surprisingly bordering on the erotic, so much so that I began to wonder if it was a safe book to bring to work!
One last component of the book is its indictment for the Age of Technology (the book is set in 1965 and Robert Kincaid considers himself “the last cowboy”). “We’re giving up free range, getting organized, feathering our emotions. Efficiency and effectiveness and all those other pieces of intellectual artifice.” It’s also a searing condemnation of the simple ways of the farm folk of Iowa (or anywhere like Madison County, really), that it can snuff out the will to live for people like Francesca or force her to choose the responsibility to her husband and children rather than to one-in-a-lifetime love. Poets were not welcome here. The people of Madison County liked to say, compseating for their own self-imposed sense of cultural inferiority, ‘This is a good place to raise kids.’ And she always felt like responding, ‘But is it a good place to raise adults?’
Even though the book’s length and internal devices should make it unfilmable, one isn’t surprised to know of its being brought to the screen due to the frame story that sucks the reader in, kicking and screaming. Like Leroux, Waller is at pains to acquaint us with the veracity of the story, that he heard it from Francesca’s children who gave him her notebooks, some photographs and copies of National Geographic, in order that he could piece together the narrative. So just a few devices in this fashion give us a feeling of timelessness. For a work of such short length, Waller’s clearly worked everything out. Do I feel it has a calculated tug on the emotions, rather than genuine feeling? Possibly. But it worked, didn’t it?