Robert Waller's The Bridges
of Madison County

by Craig Stark

13 March 2017

We'll Always Have Paris

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Author Robert James Waller passed away on Thursday, March 9. There wasn't much fanfare about it, certainly nothing on the order of a few others recently deceased. Prince, say. Or Arnold Palmer. Typically, authors don't achieve celebrity status, and why should they? At best they lurk in the background while we read - and sometimes get lost in - something they've written, their faces nowhere to be seen. And it doesn't seem to matter much if somebody like Waller penned one of the bestselling novels of all time - The Bridges of Madison County. Over 50 million copies sold to date.

Bridges is perhaps our modern day ne plus ultra of love-it-or-hate-it books. If you read reviews, especially those by us proletariat readers, you'll likely be struck by the Herculean efforts extended to either praise or condemn this book - and there's next to nothing in between. goodreads is a good place to get a feel for this. Not sure why, but this review leapt off the screen for me: "It's like eating a Twinkie, which is bad enough, but let's say that particular Twinkie got deep fried in the shrimp basket."

I'm not here to praise or condemn this book, though I must confess I could not slog through more than two chapters of it when it first came out. After decades of reading things critically acclaimed and not, it dawned on me some years back that the merit of a book - or a work of art or whatever - has far more to do with what the reader brings to it than what the author brings to the reader. Sure, it's a collaborative effort, reader and author, and nobody would deny that there are huge qualitative differences in novels, but I say, be careful what you say about a book you've read: It's a window into you, not the book.

I would also say this: Discount 50+ million copies sold at your peril. No matter how you feel about Bridges, something is going on here, something deeper than fantasy. Or soft porn indulged in by lonely, middle-aged housewives trapped in dull marriages. You might recall a ca. 1980's initiative by Iowan transportation commissioners to slap the following on its license plates: "Iowa: A State of Minds," though they soon reversed themselves. I remember liking the sound of this at the time but for reasons unintended by the commissioners. I lived many years on the prairie of Illinois, often disappearing into secret cornfields with my dog, and developed a profound appreciation for how expansive one can think and feel in this sort of landscape. I never experienced this more keenly than when a friend of mine moved to Chattanooga and I went to visit him. The crush of claustrophobia I felt among those crowded Tennessee hills was almost too much to bear. And Field of Dreams plays into this Iowan phenomenon, too. What I'm getting at here is that Bridges, by the very fact that it's set in Iowa, invites expansiveness - in this case, an openness to things other than one's otherwise small life. That the protagonists commit adultery is obviously a point of contention for many, but we all know either directly or indirectly that there exists a somewhat rare species of love we call - taking a deep breath here - true. Something that transcends our ho-hum lives. And this is what, in my opinion, Bridges taps into. In this sense adultery can at least possibly be a bridge to something bigger, and the symbolism of the bridge being covered is not lost on us.

But there's more. When true love arrives, it's often not convenient. Often it's fabulously ill-timed. There are necessarily others involved - families first and foremost. And there are two possible roads - one well traveled by, one not, as Robert Frost notes. It may well be that taking the road less traveled by makes "all the difference," though this difference, in the case of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, took her to her death. Instead, Waller chose the well-traveled road, and no doubt this disappointed at least some readers, but I think for most it did not. Among the more noble human qualities, usually when it's coaxed out of us by powerful events, is renunciation. Putting oneself aside in the face of finding at last what one has always dreamed of sets up a poignancy that brings tears to readers. No matter what one thinks about the prose that triggers this, readers who feel it deeply have looked and will continue to look beneath Waller's lines. And they also know that this kind of love is different in essence; it isn't powered by the march of time. It lives above it. Ultimately, both readers who love and hate this book get to be who they are.

If I may intrude a personal opinion, I enjoyed the movie, despite some awkward scenes. And I saw it more than once. So often the book is better than the movie. In this case, I think not. What comes to mind here is a forgettable, unproduced play - Everybody Comes to Rick's - where clearly the movie it was subsequently based on outshone its source by furlongs and became an American classic. Oh - and the plot is familiar:

"We'll always have Paris."

In the interest of keeping at least some focus on bookselling, a brief market analysis of The Bridges of Madison County follows.

I suspect that few of us know that Bridges was originally published as Love in Black and White in Great Britain by Sinclair-Stevenson.

The follow-the-flag phenomenon (the edition published in the author's country being more sought after despite priority) is definitely in play here. Values for the UK edition are minimal. The statement "First Published in Great Britain by Sinclair-Stevenson" appears on the copyright page. Reprints are so indicated.

The US edition was published in April, 1992 in a somewhat modest first printing of 35,000 copies.

The statement "First printing: April 1992" appears on the copyright page followed by a 1 to 10 number line.

Note that the statement "First printing: April 1992" persists into later printings and often invites misrepresentation by sellers. Values will get a bump for the time being, but $50 might still be a struggle for First Editions. A signature will be a plus:

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