I have been seeing ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ on and off at the bookshop or the library for years, but have never got around to reading it. I also remember the movie version starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, though I haven’t watch that either. I remember reading somewhere that it is a love story and I wondered why a love story had ‘bridges’ in the title. A couple of Sundays back when I went to my book club meeting, one of the book club members brought the book for exchange. I thought I will borrow it from him and read it. The book was coming my way once again and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
What I think
‘The Bridges of Madison County’ is about Robert Kincaid, photographer and writer, from Washington and Francesca Johnson, farm wife from Iowa. Robert Kincaid is travelling through Madison County to photograph some of the covered bridges there as part of his photography project for ‘National Geographic’ and he stops by at Francesca Johnson’s home to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges. She decides to accompany him and show him the place. One thing leads to another and they end up having dinner and an interesting conversation. Both of them don’t want things to end there, but they are strangers who have accidentally met and social norms suggest that they should part at a decent hour in the evening. However, after Robert leaves, Francesca leaves him an invitation for dinner for the next day at an interesting place. Robert, in return, invites her to his photo shoot the next day afternoon. Both of them end up spending the afternoon and evening together. Deep feelings are awakened in their heart and they fall in love. They spend the next few days together, while Francesca’s family is away. And then the difficult time comes when they have to decide what they are going to do – whether Francesca is going to leave her family and come with Robert or whether both of them have to part, carrying memories of their intense and wonderful time together for the rest of their lives. What they do and what happens next form the rest of the story.
There were beautiful sentences and paragraphs throughout the book. There is a description of Robert Kincaid at the beginning of the book, which goes like this :
He liked words and images. “Blue” was one of his favorite words. He liked the feeling it made on his lips and tongue when he said it. Words have physical feeling, not just meaning, he remembered thinking when he was young. He liked other words, such as “distant,” “woodsmoke,” “highway,” “ancient,” “passage,” “voyageur,” and “India” for how they sounded, how they tasted, and what they conjured up in his mind. He kept lists of words he liked posted in his room.
One of my favourite scenes in the book was when Robert and Francesca take a drive in Robert’s car and Robert offers Francesca a cigarette. It goes like this :
Robert Kincaid pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one halfway out, and offered it to her. For the second time in five minutes, she surprised herself and took the cigarette. What am I doing? she thought. She had smoked years ago but gave it up under the steady thump of criticism from Richard. He shook out another one, put it between his lips, and flicked a gold Zippo lighter into flame, holding it toward her while he kept his eyes on the road.
She cupped her hands around the lighter to hold the wind in abeyance and touched his hand to steady it against the bouncing of the truck. It took only an instant for her to light the cigarette, but that was long enough to feel the warmth of his hand and the tiny hairs along the back of it. She leaned back and he swung the lighter toward his own cigarette, expertly forming his wind cup, taking his hands off the steering wheel for no more than a second.
It made me remember one of my favourite scenes in a movie – the ‘anybody got a match’ scene from the movie ‘To Have or Have not’ which introduces Lauren Bacall’s character. I want to find out how the above scene is pictured in the movie version of this book.
Here is a conversation between Robert and Francesca that I liked very much :
“How do you like it here in Iowa?”
There was a moment of truth in this. She knew it. The standard reply was, “Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.”
She didn’t answer immediately. “Could I have another cigarette?” Again, the pack of Camels, again the lighter, again touching his hand, lightly. Sunlight walked across the back porch floor and onto the dog, who got up and moved out of sight. Francesca, for the first time, looked into the eyes of Robert Kincaid.
“I’m supposed to say, ‘Just fine. It’s quiet. The people are real nice.’ All of that’s true, mostly. It is quiet. And the people are nice, in certain ways. We all help each other out. If someone gets sick or hurt, the neighbors pitch in and pick corn or harvest oats or do whatever needs to be done. In town, you can leave your car unlocked and let your children run without worrying about them. There are a lot of good things about the people here, and I respect them for those qualities.
“But” – she hesitated, smoked, looked across the table at Robert Kincaid – “it’s not what I dreamed about as a girl.” The confession, at last. The words had been there for years, and she had never said them. She had said them now to a man with a green pickup truck from Bellingham, Washington.
He said nothing for a moment. Then: “I scribbled something in my notebook the other day for future use, just had the idea while driving along, that happens a lot. It goes like this : ‘The old dreams were good dreams; they didn’t work out, but I’m glad I had them.’ I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll use it somewhere. So I think I kind of know how you feel.”
Francesca smiled at him then. For the first time, she smiled warm and deep.
There is another conversation where Robert talks about artists and art which deeply resonated with me. It went like this :
“Sometime I’m going to do an essay called ‘The Virtues of Amateurism’ for all of those people who wish they earned their living in the arts. The market kills more artistic passion than anything else. It’s a world of safety out there, for most people. They want safety, the magazines and manufacturers give them safety, give them homogeneity, give them the familiar and comfortable, don’t challenge them.
“Profit and subscriptions and the rest of that stuff dominate art. We’re all getting lashed to the great wheel of uniformity.
“The marketing people are always talking about something called ‘consumers’. I have this image of a fat little man in baggy Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat with beer-can openers dangling from it, clutching fistful of dollars.”
Francesca laughed quietly, thinking about safety and comfort.
“But I’m not complaining too much. Like I said, the traveling is good, and I like fooling with cameras and being out of doors. The reality is not exactly what the song started out to be, but it’s not a bad song.”
Francesca supposed that, for Robert Kincaid, this was everyday talk. For her, it was the stuff of literature. People in Madison County didn’t talk this way, about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box.
There is a scene which describes how Robert ‘makes’ pictures, which I found quite beautiful. It goes like this :
He moved into the creek, then up the other bank. She went through the bridge with the blue knapsack and stood behind him, happy, strangely happy. There was energy here, a power of some kind in the way he worked. He didn’t just wait for nature, he took it over in a gentle way, shaping it to his vision, making it fit what he saw in his mind.
He imposed his will on the scene, countering changes in light with different lenses, different films, a filter occasionally. He didn’t just fight back, he dominated, using his skill and intellect. Farmers also dominated the land with chemicals and bulldozers. But Robert Kincaid’s way of changing nature was elastic and always left things in their original form when he finished.
The ending of the book is bittersweet – more bitter than sweet. I loved both Robert and Francesca – Francesca was an Italian once upon a time, which was so nice – and their impressions of each other and their conversations are described so beautifully in the book.
So what is my overall impression about the book?
I loved ‘The Bridges of Madison County’. Atleast most of it. I loved the book from the beginning till the point when Robert and Francesca have the conversation about what to do in the future. After that, the book went a little downhill for me. When I think about it, it was probably because the part of the book till that point describes beautiful scenes and what might happen when two human beings connect in a deep way. The part after that analyses the situation and tries to provide a solution, and I found the reasoning there logical but not really romantic or inspiring, which was at odds with the first part of the book. I loved the beautiful passages and descriptions in the book and I would like to read them again. To me, the book shows that we can deeply connect with another human being at any point of time and sometimes the real world and social norms get in the way of those deep connections and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. I wish the ending of the book was different, but I guess from a logical perspective, it can’t be.
I want to watch the movie version and see how it is when compared to the book. My friends tell me that the movie version is better. I can’t wait to find out how Meryl Streep has played the role of Francesca, because I am not sure whether she would fit the profile of Francesca’s character. I love Meryl Streep by the way. But I think Susan Sarandon might have performed this role better. When I checked Wikipedia I discovered that both of them were considered for the role, but Meryl Streep finally got it. She won an Oscar nomination for it. Interestingly for the same year, Susan Sarandon was nominated for the Oscar for the movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ and won it. Good for her J
Have you read ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or seen the movie version? What do you think about it?