20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Evan S. Connell, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell

Mr Bridge

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 304 pages; 2013.

First published in 1969, Mr Bridge is a companion novel to Mrs Bridge, which was published a decade earlier.

I read and reviewed Mrs Bridge in 2013 and loved the way it told the quietly understated story of one woman’s married life in Kansas City largely before the Second World War. Mr Bridge tells the story from the husband’s perspective.

Unconventional novel

Like its predecessor, Mr Bridge is not a conventional novel. Yes, there is an overarching narrative — that of one man’s life moving forward from the beginning of his marriage through to his children becoming adults and forging lives of their own — but it’s told in an episodic style in brief, self-contained chapters, each one almost a short story in their own right.

There’s no real plot, apart from Mr Bridge and his family growing older, and the setting is purely domestic: think suburban America in the 1930s and 40s. It is, essentially, a portrait of a financially successful man who’s emotionally stunted, unable to fully connect with his wife or their children on any truly meaningful level and leading a fairly safe, yet dreary, life.

What makes the story so poignant (and perhaps frustrating) is that Walter Bridge lacks self-awareness: he has no real knowledge that his obsession with doing “the right thing” and shunning risks of any kind makes him an entirely dull and boring man. He’s a good provider, yes, but he never gives into frivolity or spontaneity and lives his whole life by a strict moral code where joy simply does not exist. The most excitement he can ever muster is giving his children stock certificates for Christmas, which he immediately takes back to manage for them.

Prejudices from another era

In his world of white male privilege, he does not think black people should go to college, fails to see the benefit of his daughters gaining an education when they’re simply going to be married off, and believes his wife is happy because she has all the material comforts for which she could wish.

The thing is Mr Bridge is not a bad person. He’s kind and often charitable. He wants the best for his children. And he works hard. But he never sees the room for self-improvement. Even when a friend of his wife tells him he’s an odd man, he doesn’t quite get it:

“You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,” she said. “I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock, where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?”
“I’d have to think about it,” he smiled, and picked up the menu. “What do you recommend?”

Perhaps the crunch comes right at the end, when Mr Bridge’s past actions come home to roost: his older daughter plans to marry an impoverished student he does not approve of; his son wants to join the military against his advice; and his long-serving secretary breaks down when she realises he takes her entirely for granted. And then, dragged to church by his wife to celebrate Christmas, he reflects that he has not known joy and that it is, in fact, beneath him.

He remembered [feeling] 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.

This is my 15th (and final) book for #20booksofsummer. I have no memory of buying it, but I do know that it was at the same time as I bought Mrs Bridge, so it’s been sitting on my shelves for at least four years.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.

Author, Book review, Evan S. Connell, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Mrs Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell

Mrs-Bridge

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 187 pages; 2012.

Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge is one of those delightful books that is a joy to read from start to finish.

First published in 1959 and set largely before the Second World War, it is not a conventional book by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, it breaks every rule in the novel-writing book: there’s no real plot, the structure is episodic, the female character is nice but bland, and the setting is purely domestic. Yet there’s something about the simplicity of the story and its depiction of universal truths that makes it especially appealing.

The book basically charts Mrs Bridge’s married life — her wedding, motherhood, middle-age and then widowhood — in short, but beautifully controlled and sensitively written, chapters (some of them are only a page long).

Nothing of great importance happens in these vignettes, but they highlight Mrs Bridge’s kindness, her naivety, her desire to please others, her attitudes on race and class, and her constant inability to understand her three children — particularly her youngest, Douglas, whose every action seems to puzzle her.

Domestic goddess

As you progress through the book you come to realise that Mrs Bridge is the quintessential housewife and mother, putting her family’s needs before her own, as women of that time were wont to do. But as her life moves on in relentless fashion, she begins to experience a rather niggling feeling — that perhaps there is more to life than domestic drudgery. (Though I should point out Mrs Bridge’s version of drudgery doesn’t stretch much beyond writing grocery lists and doing the odd bit of cooking — she has domestic help to do all the rest.)

But in her attempts to fill the days that yawn before her with all manner of “hobbies” — bridge, shopping, visits to the country club, driving her expensive car, she even takes art classes at one point — she can never quite sustain the motivation to take these activities all that seriously. Indeed, she approaches everything half-heartedly, almost as if she knows there’s no real point in devoting too much time and effort into something that her husband will think trivial or silly.

At one point, she considers going to a therapist, as many of her friends are doing, only to have Mr Bridge, a busy lawyer, poo-poo the idea.

A sad but funny read

This might make the book sound a little dull and serious, but it’s actually a delightfully funny read. The humour works because Mrs Bridge seems constantly perplexed by things or fails to comprehend situations or conversations. It’s not that she’s dumb; she’s just a little unsophisticated in the ways of the world.

Of course, it is also a sad read, because you see the lost opportunities and the failed connections, even if Mrs Bridge doesn’t.

I’m now looking forward to reading Mr Bridge, published 10 years later, that tells the husband’s side of the story.