Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell
Just before Christmas, I acquired a review copy of the imminent Penguin Modern Classics reissue of Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell. I knew nothing about the book at all, but the synopsis intrigued me. Finding that Connell had previously written Mrs Bridge, and that Mr Bridge was therefore a sequel of sorts, I asked twitter if I should read Mrs Bridge too? Will Rycroft replied saying I’d want to read it. So I ordered a copy, and as I prefer to read books in chronological order, started with Mrs Bridge. And by the way, Will was right – this is a wonderful book.
Before I start telling you about the novel though, a note on the editions. Penguin have done a magnificent job with the new paperbacks reproducing the original cover artwork and with new introductions (by Joshua Ferris for Mrs Bridge); but they also went one step further, commissioning a limited edition from Thomas Heatherwick of a slipcased set of interlocking hardbacks, which truly captures the relationship between the couple and their stories.
On a further note, it was only when I looked up Connell to write this post, that I found out he died on January 10th this year, aged 89. Mrs Bridge was his first novel, published in 1959; he’d previously written a set of short stories. Mr Bridge followed ten years later in 1969. He wrote several other novels, collections of short stories, essays and poems and was nominated for a Man Booker International Prize in 2009.
Set between the wars, Mrs Bridge is the story of a Kansas City housewife. She’s married to the well-off but workaholic Mr Bridge, and they live in a nice suburban house in a nice area of the city. They have three children, each separated by a couple of years: Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas.
Her story is told in a series of 117 vignettes, which vary in length from a paragraph to a few pages. Each chapterette is perfectly structured – like a little short story, with its introduction, development and ending. There is much humour, particularly in her exchanges with son Douglas who is typically exasperating…
91 FRAYED CUFFS
Ordinarily Mrs Bridge examined the laundry that Ingrid carried up from the basement every Tuesday afternoon in a creaking wicker basket, but when she was out shopping, or at a luncheon, the job fell to Harriet who never paid much attention to such things as missing buttons or loose elastic. Thus it was that Mrs Bridge discovered Douglas wearing a shirt with cuffs that were noticeably frayed.
“For heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed, taking hold of his sleeve. “Has a dog been chewing on this?”
He looked down at the threads as though he had never before seen them; in fact he hadn’t.
“Surely you don’t intend to wear that shirt?”
Since he was already wearing the shirt this struck him as a foolish question, but he said, “It looks perfectly okay to me.”
“Why, just look at those cuffs! Anyone would think we’ were on our way to the poorhouse.”
“So is it a disgrace to be poor?”
“No!” she cried. “But we’re not poor!”
She desperately tries to be a good housewife. Being brought up with genteel good manners, being hidebound by them and the requirements of the country club circle in which she lives. She struggles to understand her children; she struggles to understand her husband too.
During the day when the children at school, she struggles to stay busy. They have help, so there’s no need for her to do actual housework. Thus she is enforced to live a life of leisure, and she struggles with that too. She buys a set of learn Spanish records, but only plays the first one once; she buys a painting set and enrols in an adult painting class. ‘She attended regularly for almost a month, skipped one night, got to several more, skipped three, attended spasmodically for another month, and finally dropped out altogether.’ Mrs Bridge is not a finisher.
This situation will only get worse as the children grow up and make their own mark in the world, Ruth heading for a bohemian life in New York, Carolyn marrying beneath her, and Douglas signing up before the draft gets him for the war. Mrs Bridge has an empty nest, and suffers in silence even more.
Things obviously don’t change overmuch during the following couple of decades for the well-off stay-at-home American housewife. Anyone who watches the wonderful series Mad Men will recognise some of Mrs Bridge’s dilemmas in lead character Don Draper’s first wife, Betty.
Right from the first line of the book, we know where we are…
Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it.
Saddled with an unusual forename, which she never asked her own parents where they came up with it, Mrs Bridge is fated never to live up to its exotic cachet. The irony is that she is an ordinary housewife, living an ordinary life. Life’s excitements will mostly happen to other people, and Mrs Bridge will soldier on through it.
This melancholy air pervades the whole novel, but it is never a depressing book to read, even when sad things happen. Indeed, there is much humour as Connell rejoices in life’s absurdities. He seems to have captured her character really well, yet can’t resist giving her more and more little knocks to deal with.
I so enjoyed this novel I can’t wait to read Mr Bridge, (as soon as I’ve finished reading this month’s book group selection). It will be fascinating to read Walter’s story and see a different view of this strained but loving relationship. It’s on top of the reading pile, so I’ll let you know about that next week. Watch this space…
Source: Own copy. Penguin paperback, 187 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.