Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Combination Plate 3: Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities, and A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd

Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a book discussion group selection. I had always wanted to read this novel but never got around to it. Therefore, when a book group that I belong to selected it, I was pleased. My "one of these days" list is much too long, and this would help shorten it, a bit, anyway.

Wilder doesn't squander any time in getting to the subject. The novel begins "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below. This bridge was on the highroad between Lima and Cuzco and hundreds of persons passed over it every day."

One of the witnesses was Brother Juniper who happened to be approaching the bridge as it broke.

"Anyone else would have said to himself with secret joy: 'Within ten minutes myself...!' But it was another thought that visited Brother Juniper: 'Why did this happen to those five?' If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident or we live by plan and die by plan. And on that one instant Brother Juniper made the resolve to inquire into the secret lives of those five persons, that moment falling through the air, and to surprise the reason of their taking off."

The remainder of the novel tells of Brother Juniper's efforts to learn about the five victims and to see if any possible reason could be found for their deaths at that moment and place. I think this is one of the perennial problems or questions that have bothered and bewildered humans since they developed the facility for asking questions. Is there a plan or is it chance that dictates our future?

Does Wilder answer the question? I think he does since he is the one who created the lives of the five victims. If you do decide to read it, let me know if you agree that Wilder answered the question and what you think the answer is.

Overall Rating: Recommended.


Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, a book discussion group selection. I doubt there's any need to briefly bring up the plot as I suspect most are familiar with it, even if they haven't read it. It's one of Dickens' most serious novels as one doesn't find the numerous caricatures of secondary characters that enliven Dickens' novels, or at least enliven the ones I've read.

I have gained the impression over the years that most people read this in high school for the first time. In fact, the only other novel that is mentioned as frequently as being on an high school reading list is Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. I wonder if that's still true today.

This novel is unique in that it's the only one I know of that has one of the most famous and most often quoted and misquoted beginnings and endings in all of western literature. They are like bookends, as one of the discussion group members said. The novel begins with:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

But, most often, when it is quoted, the ending is left off or ignored, which gives it a slightly different slant:

"...in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

In other words, it is just like today.

The ending is equally well-known: the narrator tells us that this would have been Sydney Carton's final thought as he awaits the guillotine:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

The one character that stands out the most for me is Madame Defarge. In Greek mythology we find the three fates: Clotho, who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle; Lachesis, who measures the thread of life allotted to each person; and Atropos, who chose the mode and time of a person's death. Madame Defarge, always knitting, is a symbol of all three, but most strongly I see her as Atropos, the one who decides how and when.

Overall Rating: Recommended, especially if you want to read something by Dickens and don't have much free time. It's one of his shorter novels.


Charles Todd: A Matter of Justice, a mystery series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard. The series is set just after the end of World War I. This novel begins on May 1920. This is the eleventh in the series by Todd, who is/are? in reality a mother-and-son writing team who live on the east coast of the US.

What makes this series stand out from others is the presence of Hamish MacLeod. Rutledge served in the British army during WWI, and his corporal was Hamish MacLeod. Rutledge was wounded in action, and in the hospital he discovered that he could hear the voice of Hamish, not saying things he remembered from the past but commenting on what was currently going on--which was impossible since MacLeod died during the war. Readers can choose to accept Hamish as a spirit/ghost occupying Rutledge's mind or see him as Rutledge's way of punishing himself for MacLeod's death. Hamish doesn't think much of Rutledge's abilities as a police officer and often offers his own interpretation of the clues and regularly delivers his own opinions about the various suspects.

A Matter of Justice is a somewhat convoluted novel in which the reader knows more from the beginning about the crime than Rutledge does for about four-fifths of the novel. The interest here is whether Rutledge, with Hamish's help (or hindrance?), will be able to overcome the hostility of the local police officer and get to the root of the crime, which actually extends back before WWI, to another war which the British might well want to forget about, the Boer War.

Overall Rating: recommended for those who enjoy police procedurals, the time and setting just after WWI in England, and a touch of the supernatural, perhaps.


Charlaine Harris: Dead Until Dark, a book discussion group selection. SGRVM says it all--Southern Gothic Romantic Vampire Mystery.

This is the novel that is the basis for the HBO series, True Blood. The heroine is a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse, who falls in love with a vampire named Bill. Her boss at the diner is Mel, who, unbeknownst to her, is a shape changer. And, then there's a serial killer running around who always drives a wooden stake into the heart of his/her victims.

Overall Rating: great book for a discussion group--excellent for comedy relief from more serious works.


  1. I did read "The Bridge of San Luis Rey". I've got to say I was completely underwhelmed by it. I didn't really feel pulled in to the lives of the people who were on the bridge, so it was hard for me to have sympathy for them. It almost felt like this story would've been better either shorter or longer than it was.

    I feel that the author did answer the question of "plan vs. chance". I think he wanted to show the randomness of what happened. I think he doesn't believe in any God behind things, and that humans have to make the best of what chance deals us. He does mention that love - remembering our love for others, and acting in love to make life better - is the only thing that matters and the only thing that makes sense in all this randomness of life.

  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, I agree with you. We live and die by chance, and no Deity controls what happens to us.

    A hurricane struck New Orleans because the meteorological conditions were right and not because a Deity wanted to punish New Orleans or its citizens for any hypothetical transgressions.

    I wonder if its great attraction for many is its philosophical underpinnings rather than its literary values.