Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)
Well, they certainly are a diverse bunch. Some are set abroad, in modern and ancient Rome (The Cabala and The Ides of March) and ancient Greece (The Woman of Andros). Others explore explicitly American themes, with one about a peripatetic salesman/preacher (Heaven’s My Destination), and another concerning a multigenerational mining family saga – slash – murder mystery (The Eighth Day). All are definitely worth reading, and reveal what The Paris Review once called “one of the toughest and most complicated minds in contemporary America.”
The one that touched me most, though, and immediately became another of my favorite books, was his very early The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I’m not alone–when it was first published, it was a huge bestseller and remains extremely popular. Wilder’s writing in this book is simply brilliant and should be studied by all aspiring writers of fiction. He has the ability to artfully turn a poetic phrase in a way that is always lucid and conversational, never pretentious or contrived. In a brief narrative (not much more than 100 pages), he manages to bring to life a whole world of distinctive characters, from aristocrats to peasants. He sets his story in 18th century Peru, but his people, while convincingly of their place and time, are also universal in their struggles with the great questions of life, death, love, and fate.
The Limited Editions Club and its mass-market arm, the Heritage Press, put out a lovely edition that brings the perfect marriage of form and content to Wilder’s words. I have the less-expensive Heritage Press version, which can easily be had for under $10. I find it a spectacular example of bookmaking for that price. The two-color binding, stamped in black and real gold leaf, is a striking and beautifully simple evocation of the characters’ journey to the fatal bridge. I love the font choices (Albertus and Plantin), which like Wilder’s writing are classic, eminently readable, and distinctive, and the typography is impeccable. The accompanying lithographs by Remy Charlot have a sculptural simplicity that also perfectly complements the text.
If you’re interested in beautiful writing and beautiful book design, I highly recommend you hunt down this edition. If you can’t find it, though, do read the Bridge in whatever form is available to you. It’s a lovely book.