My callow youth probably went on for longer than it should have done. In an early part of it, I worked in a mall bookshop in the Kansas City area while I went to college nearby. I’ve always loved books, from the earliest days of going to the library with my family. But what didn’t necessarily follow was that I therefore loved all books. I read with a very serious bent, particularly when I first started my higher education, and, apart from P.G. Wodehouse and detective stories, I didn’t read much in a lightweight vein. I certainly didn’t have time for things that were – gasp! – popular.
However, bookshops do run through cycles of popularity, where books appear on the radar suddenly, perhaps due to a movie being made, or a television “personality” advocating it. And it was in one of these cycles that people began to turn up and ask for Mrs. Bridge. At first, I assumed that it was some kind of prank. What a silly title for a book, wasn’t it? Mrs. Bridge? What was she, an architect?
Of course, youthful readers don’t have anywhere near the depth and breadth of learning that they think that they do, even if they’ve had every conceivable educational advantage. There simply hasn’t been time to read that much, to absorb an adequate volume of information, if you’re only nineteen or twenty. The average twenty-something does not think “oh, yes, there was a composer called Frank Bridge, wasn’t there?” (answer: yes, there was). And the twenty-something almost certainly is not acquainted with the bestseller lists and literary prizes from ten or twenty years before their birth.
As it happened, the requests for 1959’s Mrs. Bridge, and its companion volume Mr. Bridge, came as a result of the late-1990 release of the Merchant-Ivory film which combined the two books. At first, they arrived from the publisher, North Point Press, in uniform maroon and midnight blue covers. In the next year, a movie edition appeared, with the considerably less-attractive photo covers. And they flew from the shelves, although strangely, as I recall it, Mrs. Bridge outsold her husband.
The local interest angle was obvious for the shop where I worked: Mrs. and Mr. Bridge are set in Kansas City, Missouri, during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. They chronicle what might at first glance not seem to be a sympathetic character, Mrs. India Bridge. A resident of what can only be called the posh part of town (south and west of a shopping district called the Country Club Plaza, along a wide six-lane avenue called Ward Parkway), Mrs. Bridge lives a life which should be a dream of contentment. Her life, in the era depicted, was about as good as could be. Her husband, Walter Bridge, was a busy and successful lawyer. Although not home much as he is always working, he provides handsomely for Mrs. Bridge and her three children: Ruth, Carolyn (called “Corky” for some reason), and Douglas. They live in a fine house (although, despite the floor plans in the area, for some reason the girls share a room), have cars, servants, and more than sufficient money to meet their needs. The Depression which in America ate up lives during practically the whole of the 1930s does not get a single mention in Mrs. Bridge, to the best of my recollection. India Bridge spends her days shopping, attending to minor chores, or visiting with friends from the immediate vicinity, mainly other well-off wives. In the evening, they dine (sometimes awkwardly) with friends. And Mr. Bridge lavishes his wife with regular and excessive birthday gifts which she accepts gratefully but always believes are too much.
If this sounds like a book that would go nowhere fast, I would have agreed with you before I read it. But what is brilliantly accomplished is all in Connell’s tiny chapters, vignettes, scènes de vie, call them what you like. The reader follows the Bridge family not through trials and travails, but through the course of everyday ennui, from the point of view of India Bridge. And the result is remarkable, not only for its modernity, but for how oddly sympathetic these inherently indifferent characters are. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge are the sort of people with very little intellectual life, and very little desire for self-improvement, or even sense that they might be improved. Mrs. Bridge attempts to learn Spanish from a set of gramophone records, but quickly loses interest, and finds them, dusty, forgotten, and broken in a closet, years later. She begins to read a novel of Joseph Conrad, and is fascinated, but puts it down and forgets it. Her children are indifferent to education, although Mr. Bridge insists that they should go to college, and in the end only Corky goes (Ruth leaves for New York, and Douglas joins to Army to fight in the Second World War). Through the course of the novel, Connell’s writing seems effortless, quintessentially naturalistic. It is like hearing a story recounted by a good friend over a drink, flowing easily and naturally from one event to the next. And in that regard, it is totally unexpected. Or, rather, it was for me.
In the end, I find myself eager to move on to the second, complementary volume, Mr. Bridge, and hope to do so before very long. Highly recommended, five stars.
Reviewed 15 November 2015.
Find your copy of Mrs. Bridge, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).