Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
171 pages

The Bridges of Madison County is the ardently sensuous, heart-rending story of two star-crossed lovers named Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid. Francesca is a married farm wife living in Iowa. Robert is a traveling photographer for National Geographic. He pulls up to the front of her home one afternoon looking for directions to a bridge he has to take pictures of for an assignment. Francesca instantly feels an attraction to him and offers to ride with him to the bridge he needs to find. After that meeting, Robert and Francesca's lives are never the same again.

The novel begins with Francesca Johnson's children Michael and Carolyn contacting a writer in Iowa and requesting that he write the story of their mother and Robert Kincaid. The writer agrees to do the job and is amazed by the love story he researches and re-creates for a book. The story starts with Robert Kincaid's preparations to leave home in Washington and travel to Iowa to photograph the old covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. He reflects on his life, including his failed marriage, his peculiar childhood and personality, and he even longs to have someone with him. When he arrives in Madison County he gets directions to the seven covered bridges from a local resident and finds six of them. After driving around and failing to find the seventh bridge, Roseman Bridge, Robert pulls his truck up to a mailbox labeled "Richard Johnson, RR2" to ask for directions and sees a woman sitting on the front porch. Francesca says to Robert that she'll show him if he wants, and is surprised because she normally wouldn't behave that way with a stranger. On the drive to Roseman Bridge Francesca starts to feel giddy and even smokes cigarettes that Robert gives her despite the fact that her husband Richard forced her to quit smoking a long time ago.

When they return to her house Francesca asks Robert if he would like an ice tea and offers to make him supper. He accepts. After he unloads his photography equipment from his truck to cool off, he enters the kitchen and settles in. While they are drinking and eating Robert asks Francesca how she likes Iowa. She reveals to him that it's a good place and the people are good, but it is not the life she imagined as a young girl. Robert tells her about his life and his profession. She tells Robert that her husband and children are away at the Illinois State Fair. Francesca feels drawn to Robert's poetic nature and his passion for his work. After supper they take a walk in the pasture and Francesca doesn't want the evening to end. When they return home she offers him a glass of brandy and they sit together drinking and smoking until Richard decides to leave. After they say goodbye Francesca drives her truck to Roseman Bridge and leaves a note there for Robert.

The next day Robert gets the note that says he can come over to have supper with Francesca after he finishes his photo shoot. He calls her and accepts the invitation. Then he invites her to come along with him while he's photographing one of the bridges. Francesca is worried that people in town will see her with him and gossip, but she tells him she'll meet him there in her pickup. They spend the day together at Cedar Bridge and Francesca is mesmerized by Robert's work and his presence. Robert goes home with her to wash off while she prepares their evening meal. After Francesca takes a bath and wears a brand new pink dress she bought that afternoon, Robert tells her that she looks absolutely stunning. Francesca falls in love with him at that moment. As the night goes on Robert and Francesca get closer and closer. When Robert asks Francesca to dance with him and she walks into his arms, they give in to their feelings and make love in her bedroom. Over the next four days Robert and Francesca are inseparable and passionately consume each other.

Robert declares  to Francesca on the morning after their first night together: "This is why I'm here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived this life. And in all of those years, I have been falling toward you." But they eventually have to face reality that Francesca's family is coming home soon. When Robert suggests that he'll have a talk with her husband, Francesca tells him that it's not a good idea. She explains to Robert that she feels a sense of responsibility to her family and that she won't leave them. She also tells him she fears that if they started a life together they wouldn't be able to sustain their love the way it is at this moment because she'd be overcome with guilt for abandoning her husband and kids. Robert respects her decision and they choose to enjoy their remaining time together talking and making love.

While they are struggling with their imminent separation Robert whispers to Francesca "I have one thing to say, one thing only; I'll never say it another time, to anyone, and I ask you to remember it: In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live." Francesca and Robert say goodbye to each other on a Thursday afternoon, both of them fighting to let each other go. As Robert drives his truck out of her driveway she weeps and Robert cries as he drives down the road. Francesca's husband and children come home that evening. She tries hard to keep her composure, but several days later she sees Robert's truck leaving town and cries in front of her husband. Richard doesn't know why his wife has been so emotional and distant since his return. Francesca battles within herself to stand by her decision to continue to live a responsible life with her family. Over the next twenty four years of her life she thinks about Robert every day. After her husband dies she tries to contact Robert, but she finds out that he no longer lives in Washington or works for National Geographic. Her fear that Robert might be dead prevents her from continuing her search for him.

On her sixty-seventh birthday, Francesca reflects on her love affair with Robert and takes mementos from her drawer to remember every detail. She has a letter that Robert wrote to her shortly after he left Iowa and a photograph that he took of her on the pasture of her home. She also looks at the letter his lawyers sent her about the contents of his will. The letter states that his ashes were scattered at Roseman Bridge and he left her a letter thirteen years after they met. In the last letter Robert wrote to her he states that he is giving her his photography equipment and his medallion that had her name engraved in it. He updates her on his life at the time, saying he has a dog named Highway and that he left National Geographic. He ends the letter professing "I love you, profoundly and completely. And I always will." Francesca then reads the short story he wrote about his love for her called "Falling from Dimension Z." The book ends with Michael and Carolyn reading a letter from their mother after her passing where she reveals her love for Robert and the time they spent together. Michael and Carolyn now understand why their mother chose to get her ashes scattered at Roseman Bridge. They decide to hire a writer as a tribute to their love story. In the epilogue of the novel the writer finds out about the final years of Robert's life, from an interview with his friend, a jazz musician. The jazz musician tells the writer that the story that Robert told him about a woman he loved deeply inspired him to compose a song that he played for Robert at his club until he passed. The song was named "Francesca."

Monday, November 7, 2011

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
128 pages

O Pioneers! is a spellbinding novel about a young woman named Alexandra who builds up a Midwestern farm from terrible conditions after her immigrant father passes away. She stays single for most of her life to make her land prosperous as she takes care of her young brother Emil and is in charge of her other brothers Lou and Oscar as well. She is an unofficial early twentieth century mogul.

Alexandra is an acute, persistent business woman who developed and managed her father's dream land in a manner that would have made him so proud he would've died with a smile on his face had he lived to see the results of her labor. But that's not all there is to the story. There is her childhood friend Carl, her crazy tenant Ivar, and her attractive neighbor Marie, who is married, but has an emotional attachment to Emil. The novel features poignant, vivid imagery.

The climax is in some ways predictable, but unexpected. It unfolds at a rapid and suspenseful pace that leaves a feeling of shock. Through Alexandra's point of view the novel explores common themes such as love, feminism, and isolation in a subtle and engaging manner.

An interesting fact about this book is that it is written by an American woman and takes place during a key time period in U.S. history that is often overlooked. O Pioneers! should be in American school canons because it is a deeply moving, beautifully-written treasure.