I don’t make a habit of reading bad books. For voracious readers, the sheer volume of books that they tear through means that they’ll statistically be exposed to more bad ones, but I simply don’t have the time to read that much with my busy schedule of being mad on Twitter and worrying about global warming. Therefore, I try to make my reading time count, but sometimes a bad book slips through the cracks. Let me explain how this happened to me.
Our local library was having a huge book sale where you could bring a bag and fill it up with as many books as you could fit for $10 or something wild. Naturally, I went, and naturally, the setup warps your judgement a bit. If you’re on the fence about a book in this situation, why not just throw it in the bag? Especially when there’s a crowd and you want to snatch the best books possible before someone else does.
It was in this environment that I came upon a stack of copies of Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. The very fact that the library was trying to offload a stack of these books should have been a warning sign, but that didn’t register with me at the time. What registered was the title. “That was a movie with Meryl Streep in it!” I thought, and put the least beat-up copy in my bag. Because it’s Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep is an indicator of quality. This story was compelling enough to make MERYL “Miranda Priestly” “Sister Aloysius” “Sophie the Chooser” “Julia Child” “Maggie Thatcher” “Aunt Josephine” STREEP lend her talents to the big-screen adaptation. I bought into this lie, and I was led astray.
That was part one of my personal hell. Part two was picking this book of all the books to read on a plane. I was trapped in an enclosed space with this book when I finally realized what I’d done.
Your brain has ways of protecting you from devastating truths. That’s why the first stage of grief is denial, and it’s why I gave this book the benefit of the doubt for the first few pages. Yes, this book begins with “There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them,” and no, that doesn’t bode well, but in my defense it was 4:30am and I was at the gate waiting for my boarding zone to be called. I wanted to believe.
I came to learn that The Bridges of Madison County is a “book” in the same way that store-brand Cheez Whiz is a “food” and Mitch McConnell is a “human being.” We’re dealing in only the barest of technicalities here. The publisher certainly tried its best to make it seem more literary, adding bulk to its very slim word count with enormous margins and splashy opening pages to each chapter.
Sure, that’s what novels are like.
This book is written so badly and structured so bizarrely that we’re going to take this chapter by chapter. It’s going to be a two-parter because I got VERY worked up, so look for part 2 tomorrow morning.
This stupid book frames itself as fucking found footage. I don’t know why that could possibly be necessary, because the story isn’t remotely interesting enough to warrant a “based on true events!!” hook. The prologue is written in the first person, and it’s like “I’m a real famous author” - this narrator is fictional, because the real author was just some guy and not famous at all - “so one day this guy Michael Johnson calls me. He says he has a story I need to look into but he can’t say more over the phone. He offers to fly across the country to meet me in person to discuss it.”
So he met this Michael Johnson and his sister Carolyn and they say he can write about their story if he wants, but if not - this is a direct quote from the book - “I must agree never to disclose what transpired in Madison County, Iowa, in 1965 or other related events that followed over the next twenty-four years.” They have a pile of documents to back up their story from their mother, Francesca.
Wow, you’re probably thinking, that’s cool, I bet there’s a murder going on or something. Wrong!! There’s nothing cool like murder happening here. “In a world where personal commitment in all of its forms seems to be shattering and love has become a matter of convenience, they both felt this remarkable tale was worth the telling,” narrates the narrator, purpley. He goes on for pages and pages about how he verified all the details with maps and records and stuff and it’s very investigative even though, and I cannot emphasize this enough, there was not even a little murder. Then he goes on for more pages saying that this story will change your life and “reduce [your] level of cynicism about what is possible in the arena of human relationships,” and he ends this prologue by saying that you “may even find, as Francesca Johnson did, room to dance again.” I didn’t!!!!!!!
Robert Kincaid is a professional photographer and he’s traveling to do some professional photography. He’s driving through the Cascades, solitarily, wishing he had a dog, because he’s lonely. But he can never get a dog, because his life is too transitory. He is doomed to a life of loneliness forever, probably. He was an only child and now his parents are dead and he has no relatives or friends. He’s a loner, Dottie, a rebel. He had once had a beautiful wife who was a singer, but she left him because his life was just too restless for her. Now he’s 52 and lonely, although now he can play the guitar because she taught him. It’s 1965 and he’s not into that Bob Dylan fellow at all.
He keeps driving, a lonely solitary lonesome stoic man, thinking about how nice it would be to have someone to love. Oh, sure, women love him. A beautiful creative director at an ad agency is obsessed with him back home in Washington State. She used to sleep around a lot when she was younger, and now she sleeps with Robert and “invariably” tells him after sex, “You’re the best, Robert, no comparison, nobody even close.”
That is a direct quote from this book and I just want to remind you that the author’s name is also Robert.
Robert Kincaid, the character, doesn’t even care that he’s the best lover she’s ever had, even though she would know, due to her being a slut. One time the beautiful creative director, who doesn’t have a name, told Robert, “Robert, there's a creature inside of you that I'm not good enough to bring out, not strong enough to reach. I sometimes have the feeling you've been here a long time, more than one lifetime, and that you've dwelt in private places none of the rest of us has even dreamed about. You frighten me, even though you're gentle with me. If I didn't fight to control myself with you, I feel like I might lose my center and never get back.” I bet this lady’s ad campaigns suck because she’s real florid and weird in her regular speech.
Robert knew what she meant, though, for he had always been special. He was the smartest little boy in school. He wrote poetry. He took IQ tests and his teachers were astounded, but he didn’t care because he never played by society’s rules. His teachers asked his mom about why her kid was so smart and she responded, “Robert lives in a world of his own making. I know he’s my son, but I sometimes have the feeling that he came not from my husband and me, but from another place to which he’s trying to return” and the book doesn’t say so but I imagine the teacher was like “Lady, whut.”
The family didn’t have money to send their weird reincarnated time-traveling son to college, so he enrolled in the army (brave) and was assigned to be a photographer’s assistant (creative). The army photographers were like “you’re a natural genius at photography” (brilliant) and he became a fashion photographer. Models were always throwing themselves at him (handsome). One said to him one time “Robert, I don’t know who or what you are for sure, but please come visit me in Paris,” but he never did because fashion is frivolous and dumb and he was an artistic man, so he went to work for National Geographic instead (deep, respectable).
Now he’s in Iowa to photograph some bridges…..The Bridges….of Madison County. He’s driving around but he gets lost, so he decides to stop by a house to ask for directions. And he sees a lady. And Robert Kincaid, the brilliantest artistic genius brave army man who fucks good and can play the guitar, feels nervous because the lady is a hottie.
It’s the future now. We’ve flashed forward. Francesca is old and thinking about her deceased husband Richard. It’s her birthday and her kids Michael and Carolyn (from the prologue!! remember??) can’t make it home because they’re busy career people, but that’s okay because “she had her own ceremonies reserved for that day.”
There’s not much reason for her to stay in the old house in Iowa, but she has one special reason. She moved here with Richard after they met in her home country of Italy, back when she “wore ribbons in her black hair and clung to her dreams.” But she ceased clinging to her dreams because she realized a life of adventure would never come to her. She settled for a nice kind American soldier man, even if he was boring, and moved to America and has lived in Iowa ever since.
Now she’s an old lady, and it’s time for The Ritual: drinking brandy and going through old letters from Robert motherfuckin Kincaid. Robert writes sentences like “It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty humming blithely along beneath our ignorance. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of the years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.” That’s just one paragraph from this thing!! Robert also says he has enclosed some pictures he took of her and a piece he wrote about his love for her titled “Falling from Dimension Z.” The man is deranged.
Francesca doesn’t think so, though. She’s old and looking at the photos from when she was a young smokin’ hottie and we get a lot of pages about what it was like to have her picture taken by Robert “The Man” Kincaid, photography and sex genius. “I never looked that good before or after,” she thinks. “It was him.” Robert is an otherworldly time-traveler who frightens his mother and blows creative directors’ minds and makes Iowa housewives reach peak beauty just by his presence alone. There’s just something about men named Robert!
How had she met Robert Kincaid? Well, as luck would have it, Richard and the children were off at the Iowa State Fair, showing off their prized cows, Iowaly. She’d been out on the porch sipping tea when a man appeared. The exact quote the book uses is as follows: “And out of the pickup came Robert Kincaid, looking like some vision from a never-written book called An Illustrated History of Shamans.” Y’all, I wanted to JUMP off the PLANE. What does that sentence MEAN?! He was a VISION from a book? Books don’t contain VISIONS! The book was never written?! It’s an imagined book?? About shamans?? Just say he looked like a shaman!!!!! Who edited this thing??
It gets worse. “His eyes looked directly at her, and she felt something jump inside. The eyes, the voice, the face, the silver hair, the easy way he moved his body, old ways, disturbing ways, ways that draw you in. Ways that whisper to you in the final moment before sleep comes, when the barriers have fallen. Ways that rearrange the molecular space between male and female, regardless of species. ” WHAT IS GOING ON HERE. This goes on for TWO MORE PARAGRAPHS listing even more “ways!” Why are you wasting so many words, Author Robert? Just say “Robert was sex on a stick!” That’s what Hemingway would do.
Robert asked for directions to a bridge (one of The Bridges of Madison County) and Francesca was like, why I don’t I show you the bridge of Madison County. Let me jump in that truck of yours. Normally she would never do such a thing, but the power of Robert and His Ways has made her more beautiful and more daring.
She hops in his truck and they have pages and pages of sexual tension. Francesca stares at Robert. “He wasn’t handsome, not in any conventional way,” says the book, OH, BULLSHIT, “Nor was he homely. Those words didn’t seem to apply to him. But there was something, something about him.” They go to the bridge and he takes pictures of the bridge and there’s even more sexual tension. He drives her back and she invites him in for a glass of iced tea, even though he has seen the name “Richard Johnson” on the mailbox and realized she had a husband. They have iced tea inside, and there is sexual tension, and Robert thinks that she’s good-looking but that’s not even what matters. He’s not shallow. Lots of women are good-looking, and they all are obsessed with him, but this woman also clearly had intelligence and passion and sensuality. This woman was different. Who? The girl reading this.
They have more sexual tension as he tells her about his job. He asks about hers and she says she used to teach English but her boring dumb husband didn’t want her to work. He asks how she likes Iowa, and she tells him the secret she has never told anyone: she only likes Iowa okay. It’s nice, but she does not love Iowa. I wouldn’t confess something like that on my literal deathbed, but Francesca is going absolutely buckwild. She invites him to stay for supper and offers to make pork chops and he says he’s a vegetarian, and she swoons. She has lived in Iowa for years and now a real vegetarian is in her kitchen, refusing meat like some kind of movie star.
They prepare dinner together, with pages and pages of sexual tension, and Robert tells her how his pictures are just too brilliant and artistic for National Geographic and they’re always like “Just give us some regular pictures! You’re a loose canon, Kincaid!” and that’s hard on his artist heart. Francesca continues to swoon, because the people of Iowa have butter-congested farmer hearts, not artist hearts like his. They have dinner and talk about their life and there are so many more pages of sexual tension with nothing happening at all.
“Ancient Evenings, Distant Music”
After dinner they took a walk out in the pasture. Her boring husband never takes walks with her. He watches TV like a rube. Francesca is bored by television. She reads books, intelligently. They watch the sunset and Robert quotes Yeats and Francesca is like “that’s Yeats,” intelligently, and Robert responds, “Good stuff, Yeats. Realism, economy, sensuousness, beauty, magic.” Francesca swoons, for she taught her students about Yeats but none of the high schoolers got it like this guy because they were born and raised in dumbfuck Iowa, a place where poetry keels right over and kicks the bucket.
She invites Robert in for a drink. They have brandy. (Get it?? From the future? On her birthday??) even though she never has brandy and she worries that he’ll be able to tell that she’s just an Iowa plebeian who never drinks brandy.
Robert watches Francesca and feels the old ways inside him. What are these “ways?” Is it like the chest monster inside Harry in Order of the Phoenix? I guess so, because Robert wonders “how it would feel to touch her skin, to put his belly against hers.” What the hell! This is the stud that so impressed that slutty creative director? That’s what he thinks sex is?
He makes a toast “to ancient evenings and distant music” and Francesca literally gasps at the beauty of that statement event though IT DOESN’T MAKE NO DAMN SENSE!! The evening ends because he has to go get some sleep so he can photograph a bridge at sunrise. He thanks her for everything and adds, basically, “I can tell you’ve never had that brandy before but maybe your stupid piece of shit husband will drink with you if you try more” and Francesca isn’t offended that he can tell that she’s an Iowa plebeian because it means he understands her.
He leaves and she despairs. She stands alone in front of her mirror and thinks about how bad her sex life is and how boring her husband is. She can’t bear it. She jumps in her car and drives to the bridge (of Madison County) that Robert is going to visit in the morning and leaves a note for him.
To be continued…but, like, don’t get your hopes up that it gets better…