In his 1959 novel, Mrs Bridge, Evan S. Connell gives us a series of short vignettes from the life of an upper-middle-class housewife in Kansas City. The prose itself is simple and straightforward. There are no tricks. But the fragments accumulate to form a dazzling whole. It is, I think, the same strategy that Jhumpa Lahiri expertly deployed years later in The Namesake, to tell the story of the Gangulis.
There is much to admire in Connell’s telling. Not least because he has a sense of humor about the whole thing. India Bridge, whose ‘parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her,’ can be ridiculous. She puts out expensive hand towels for guests and, sure that they will never use them, carefully packs them away after they leave. In one chapter, she chides her daughter Ruth for not carrying a purse when she goes out, and for not fastening the top bottom of her blouse. ‘You look like a chorus girl,’ she says. As Ruth shuts the door, Mrs Bridge, hopeless now, calls out, ‘But, dear, a lady always carries a purse!’
Mrs Bridge is also a fair bit racist, pretentious, and prone to being judgmental. When her daughter Carolyn informs her that the cleaning lady has arrived, she corrects her. ‘You should say cleaning ‘woman.’ A lady is someone like Mrs Arlen or Mrs Montgomery.’ When Carolyn grows too close to the gardener’s daughter Alice, who is Black, Mrs Bridge gets worried and puts an end to the friendship with a few carefully worded conversations with each girl.
Yet Mrs Bridge believes she is doing her best. She helps the poor. She teaches her kids manners. She wants them to grow up to be good people. She loves her husband, though he does not feel much passion towards her. By the novel’s end, we are fully empathetic, for we have lived Mrs Bridge’s life with her, through motherhood, awkward dinners, uncomfortable conversations, shopping trips, a long overdue vacation to Europe, all the way up to her husband’s death, a time when her adult children are alienated from her.
When the book was published, my own parents were children in India, then a newly independent nation. What would their vignettes be? Maybe my mother’s first day of school in the village, when she rode down the block on a bullock cart, or the times my father hopped off the bus that brought him home from school a few stops early, so he could save money to buy sweets. I have, in my closet, my grandfather’s letters from that time, ones he received and wrote (he kept carbon copies), and his journals. In them, he has notes on everything – droughts, the cost of rice, a nephew’s wedding, knee pain, Rotary Club meetings, wartime memories. All of it is very ordinary, but it tells me who he was.
It is the ordinary that makes Mrs Bridge such an intimate character study. ‘How we spend our days,’ the writer Annie Dillard wrote, ‘Is how we spend our lives.’ And Connell’s careful hand tells the story without sentimentality and, more importantly, without judgement.
Ten years later, he wrote Mr Bridge, a companion book that offers more insight into Mrs Bridge’s husband. The books were later adapted into a Merchant Ivory film in 1990 called Mr and Mrs Bridge.
The movie is on my holiday watch list though, truthfully, I am satisfied with Mrs Bridge’s side of the story, with the warm, comfortable way in which it invites us into her world. And of how swiftly it moves forward from one mundane detail to another. It is through the mundane that the richness of a life becomes clear and through which truth and beauty – Mrs Bridge’s and everyone else’s – emerges.
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