(This is not a) Book Review: The Bridges of Madison County

Today I found myself sat in Nashville, Tennessee with a broken truck and a boyfriend working in LA. The sun was shining and the humidity was low which doesn’t happen often in a Tennessee summer. I wasn’t sure my brain cells could endure another Netflix session watching endless episodes of Hart of Dixie (great show but there’s only so much Lemon Breeland one can deal with) so I decided to take a wander to Southern Thrift and pick up a few books to read on the porch. After rooting around amidst the usual suspects of Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey and rescue your marriage self-help manuals I made a nice selection of four books and returned home armed with blueberry muffins and iced tea.

I admit two of my selections were very much swayed by beautiful covers (I’m an art history graduate so I can be tempted by such frivolities) and one was based on enjoying the author’s books previously. My last selection was The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. This is a book which I would throw in with those other titles in which you are so overtly familiar with but at the same time you have no real sense of what they are actually about. I picked it up as a book you should probably read in order to be a well-read individual and didn’t even bother to read the blurb on the back. Who can go wrong for 99 cents anyway.

Now I must make this clear before we go on… this is not a book review. This will not hint at the plot line and make a few remarks on characters and leave you wanting more. If you haven’t read this book I recommend that you stop reading immediately, find a copy, read it and return then. If you have read it then by all means stick with me here…

I settled myself down with a muffin and a cold glass of tea and looked forward to an afternoon stretched ahead of me dipping into a new book. I opened it up and read the first page… and then didn’t emerge from the pages of this wonderfully poignant book until I had ingested the final page. Wow. What a book. What a story. And so not what I had expected.

This is one of those books where you close it up and then just sit and think for a moment. The blurb (which I did eventually read upon completion of the book) states “… and so begins a story that you will never forget…” Now I want to make this clear from the outset that I’m not necessarily a hopeless romantic. Yeah I get a few butterflies over The Notebook but who doesn’t where Ryan Gosling is concerned? But I’m not one to be moved by the quintessential great love story. Heathcliff digging up Kathy from her peaceful dead slumber is about as romantic as I get when it comes to fiction. However, this book stirred even my cold heart!

I think there is something in the fact that this isn’t a young couple. They didn’t do profoundly romantic things. They were human. They feel real. This could be something to do with the prologue to the novel where the author writes about being visited by Francesca’s children and asked to tell her story. In your head you are now approaching this story as real life. Robert Kincaid was a real life photographer and I could go and buy a copy of National Geographic wherein he photographs the covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. A quick Google search will confirm that he is in fact a work of fiction. The prologue is just a clever piece of writing that makes you believe in and feel for the characters even more. It’s like that tag line on a film “based on a true story” that gets everyone so fired up, however loosely it may be based.

Whether you would like to believe that they are real or not, you will likely come away from this with an opinion of both Francesca and Robert and the decision they make. Should Francesca have left with Robert after those four heady days of romance? Or was the reason the love became so special entirely because it was so short lived? Francesca decides she can’t leave her responsibilities as a wife and mother, letting Robert drive off down her rutted farm track to never be seen again. I think there’s merit in both arguments.

This is 1960’s rural Iowa. Running off with a long-haired photographer would not “be the done thing”. Francesca felt tied to her responsibilities and it must be considered that at one point she left her own country of Italy to make a life with Richard in the States so there must have been love at some point. I think by staying, the love was able to stay pure in her mind not sullied by any mundane daily rituals or worries. This has its definite plus points.

If she had left she would have been leaving her husband and two children who admittedly weren’t very young but were at an important stage in their lives where school, first heartbreaks and choosing which college to go to seem like impossible hurdles to get past. But if she had left she could have had a life of travel where her intellect was challenged and exercised with a man who excited her and pushed her to think in new and radical ways.

My moral side felt as if she had done the right thing. But my romantic side was disappointed that she didn’t go. We only have one shot at this life and to live it with so many regrets and unanswered questions seems a real shame. She could have seen the world, experienced a once in a lifetime love and then maybe it would all have floundered and she would have settled down to a quiet life in the rural US again. But at least she would have known. Maybe this just comes from a person who finds this very close to her own heart. I met a man in 2013 completely unexpectedly on a night out in Birmingham. He was American, I was English. He was a sound engineer for big musicians, I was studying for my Masters degree. We lived on different continents. I wrote it off as something which could never happen. Then 7 months later the “what ifs” got the better of me and I contacted him via Facebook. We stayed up half the night talking and 3 months later I found myself on a flight to New York to spend 3 months living with a guy I’d only met briefly the previous year. After I left we spent the next 6 months snatching the odd evening together when he was working in England or France and then I flew back out to the States to spend the summer with him. I’ve now been offered a job out here and we’re planning this next step of our relationship. I can’t help but draw parallels with my own romantic experiences. There’s been times when it’s been terribly hard and I’ve thought it would be easier just to throw the towel in and forget it. But whatever the outcome of this I know I won’t spend every birthday looking through the artefacts of this love I’ve experienced and regret it. I will know I gave it my best shot and I will have a million and one memories to cherish and share for decades to come.

By Eleanor Carter

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