More Than Just a Fiction
["The Bridges of Madison Square" by Robert James Waller, A Mandarin Paperback 1993; ISBN 0749316780]
A farmer’s wife enduring her life of insipidity in a small town of Iowa suddenly bumps into somebody special, a person with all the charms of life that have ever eluded her for years. She does ‘not scout around for any adventure’ yet gets completely besotted with him. Now her dream unfolds with all the colours of rainbow as she watches him coming closer. Everything of him throws the charm around--the way he talks, the sensitivity he displays, the empathy that alleviates her unexpressed regrets, the bucolic blithe he enjoys away from the bustle of modernity. Then comes the intimacy…and then the love. It is a love at first sight, a passion that permeates into every untouched corner of the soul--beautifully, with fiery spontaneity.
And finally comes the moment to decide—the moment demands only a decision and, that too, a decision for the rest of the life. Yes, ‘In the universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.’
But the lady falters. She has her family to live for. And she knows what are in store for them once she steps out of her home. So she makes the ultimate sacrifice by saying a ‘no’, a reluctant ‘no’. The man of charm leaves, only after a short sojourn with intensive lovemaking and emotional fulfillment. He takes with him a lifetime’s memory to cherish. He leaves behind the darling of his heart to ruminate and relive the sweet moments of freedom and frolic. The passion lingers on.
That is all in the storyline of Robert James Waller’s ‘ The Bridges of Madison County’. But then the book has more than this bare storyline that is only too common and too devoid of welcome twists. It is a story with rhythmic flow, told but not exaggerated, and the writer’s effort in refining is anything but obvious. It unfolds at a pace that is comfortable, without allowing moments of sweetness to melt just like that, without consequence.
There is something very interesting about the plot: the offspring come to take the love story of their parent from the depth of privacy to limelight. That happens to be the uncommon aspect of the story. From the point of view of offspring, such extra-marital love affair of their late parent could just be an object of shame, but Waller has entrusted them with the task. However, he seems to explain it as he proceeds. The children realize how their mother sacrificed her love for the sake of her children, for her family. The daughter has the following words to say her brother: ‘Oh, Michael, Michael, think of them all those years, wanting each other so desperately. She gave him up for us and for Dad. And Robert Kincaid stayed away out of respect for her feelings about us. Michael, I can hardly deal with the thought of it. We treat our marriages so casually, and we are a part of the reason that an incredible love affair ended the way it did.’
A love of this profundity needs exceptionally high-spirited souls to eventuate; depending only on settings and situations to bring about the desired effect may not ultimately work. So, the characters need to be well explored. And here the lover Robert Kincaid, and the beloved Francesca are to exhibit all the qualities necessary for enacting an out-of-this-world love affair. Has Waller succeeded in this? The answer, in my reckoning, could be ‘yes’, or ‘to a large extent’.
Robert Kincaid is a photographer for the National Geographic who works not merely for money; the ultimate satisfaction of his artistic craving is at the uppermost of his mind. With a bohemian attitude to his profession, he is not in good books of the editorial board, yet he manages to continue there as he is willing to do such projects as are left aside by others. He has had a stint in the US Army; a brief married life that did not work owing to his long absence from home. He understands music, poetry and conducts himself as per the demands of his sentimental self. Modern life is too organized to leave room for freedom; so we find Robert with a truck that is badly out of tune, cameras that have been thoroughly overused, clothes that are not strictly according to the dictates of fashion-makers and so forth. Yet he is a sensitive nature-lover, a vegetarian with moderate drinking habits, and a generous friend. He is ‘the leopard-like creature who rode in on the tail of a comet’, ‘one of the last cowboys’, ‘a wanderer’.
Francesca is a quiet homely lady who has learnt the ways to keep the conjugal affair well with in the limits of social decency. She is not happy about the rapid deterioration of physical and sentimental attraction between the couple themselves and yet has never searched avenues of fulfillment. Even when Kincaid comes in her life with all the dreams she has longed for, she just hesitates to run away with him. Despite everything, she decides one day to go beyond the limits of conjugal life; it is, in fact, a courageous step on her part. She evinced courage, but only to this extent and nothing beyond.
Waller leaves the character of Richard, the husband of Francesca, out of his scheme of highlighting the principals. He is just a husband, a dominating one in the family, yet knows what he has failed to bestow on his wife. In her last letter addressed to her children, Francesca recounts how broad-hearted Richard was. While in death bed, he says, ‘“Francesca, I know you had your own dreams, too. I’m sorry I couldn’t give them to you.”’
Finally there is a question to answer: Is the story a real one? The author claims it is. He had written this on the requests of the children of the woman in love; he had journeyed across the places of events; there were extensive researches into the matter. To quote: ‘In spite of the investigative effort, gaps remain. I have added a little of my own imagination in those instances, but only when I could make reasoned judgemens flowing from the intimate familiarity with Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid I gained through my research. I am confident that I have come very close to what actually happened.’
Against such assertions by the author, there is perhaps no scope to treat it imaginary. But then again the publisher categorizes the book as a ‘Fiction’. So, can we treat is a biography? Or a work in cross-genre?
Labels: Book Review