Mr Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics) by Evan S Connell
Written ten years after his 1959 novel Mrs Bridge, Connell’s companion piece Mr Bridge tells the story of the Bridge family through the same time period from the 1930s into WWII, but from the husband’s point of view.
I read and adored Mrs Bridge a couple of weeks ago (see my review here). I did wonder whether it would matter in which order I read the pair of novels. Now, having read both, I was glad to have started with ‘Mrs B’ first. Although tending to the melancholy in nature, Mrs B was light and humorous; Mr Bridge, however, although written in the same style of vignettes, is longer and more serious. It raises many more questions about how middle class families lived in those times, so it was better to come to it having already been introduced to the Bridge family of Kansas City: Walter and his wife India, and kids Ruth, Caroline and Douglas.
Mr Bridge adores his wife and family. He just finds it nigh on impossible to regularly demonstrate it to them in a way that doesn’t involve him letting go; he is the sort of man that gives his children stock certificates for Christmas. He is the sort of man that can be generous behind the scenes but is so straight laced the rest of the times – his friend Dr Sauer calls him ‘a consummate Puritan.’ He shows it by working long and hard to provide for them, and thus his wife is unintentionally cocooned from real life.
Walter is a successful lawyer, yet he rarely talks about work at home, hiding behind the mask of professional confidentiality. In this novel we learn that he has a secretary Julia who has worked with him for years yet ‘he seldom thought about her.‘ She is a great support to him, but is effectively invisible.
It’s not often that anyone manages to pierce his veil of inscrutability. One day he bumps into India’s doomed friend Grace Barron, and he is forced to join her for lunch.
‘You’re not as cold as you pretend to be,’ she said. ‘I think your doors open in different places, that’s all. Most people just don’t know how to get in to you. They knock and they knock where the door is supposed to be, but it’s a blank wall. But you’re there. I’ve watched you. I’ve seen you do some awfully cold things warmly and some warm things coldly. Or does that make sense?’
‘I’d have to think about it,’ he smiled, and picked up the menu. ‘What do you recommend?’
Grace has him about right. Walter is full of contradictions; he will take on pro bono cases to aid a deserving Jew or black person, but is quick for instance to write off Dr Sauer’s stockbroker, Avrum Goldstein, a self-made man, as flashy like a ‘slum landlord‘ and thus not to be trusted.
He mostly keeps his darker thoughts to himself, although he can be provoked on occasion, as when India, horrified, shows him a picture of a lynching in a magazine.
The picture irritated him because its publication was unnecessary, but he concealed his reaction. He studied the contorted body and the glistening black face. Then he examined the crowd… Most of the men were grinning. Several of the boys had struck comic poses for the camera. The photograph evoked a sense of the South: he could nearly feel the oppressive heat and hear the hoots of laughter as the lash went whistling through the air …
Suddenly he remembered that his wife had spoken; he blinked, glanced up, and discovered her staring at him with a frightened expression.
Connell observes this casual racism and discrimination but leaves it to Ruth, their eldest daughter, to repeatedly challenge him about it, particularly after she moves to New York to work. His reaction when he finds out she’d let a friend who was gay stay over in her flat is typical, but Ruth, being of the post-depression era generation, is reassuringly not like her old-fashioned father in that respect.
He also finds it hard to cope at times with his daughters’ growing-up and becoming young women, (like many fathers I’d wager) being jealous of their boyfriends and ashamed at the slight frisson of arousal the girls can generate in him.
Mr Bridge although an archetypal successful but ordinary middle-class man, is a more complex character than his wife. Luckily, we do get some chances to laugh with him though. As in Mrs Bridge, much of the humour again comes through in the interactions with their youngest, Douglas, and these episodes provide some light relief, yet he can barely let himself go to do boys stuff with his son, such is his emotional constipation.
Mr Bridge is a more challenging novel than Mrs Bridge. It has to be, they share many of the same events which makes it fascinating to read, if harder to love.
It really is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts with this brilliant pair of novels. If you were to only read one side of the story, you will miss out on so much.
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I received a review copy of the new edition. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mr Bridge (Penguin Modern Classics) by Evan S Connell, Penguin Modern Classics, 274 pages.
Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell, Penguin Modern Classics, 208 pages.