Top 100 Books
The Bridges of
By Robert James Waller
Those who know me well will think this choice for my 99th top book is a joke. It’s not. Nor did I like this book. And I said earlier that “liking a book” was to be one of the main criteria in my selection process. Why, then, is Bridges on my list at number 99?
First, some background. When I began making my list of the top 100 books of all time, I thought the first ten and the last ten would be easy. I made a list of about 200 books I felt I should consider and then began whittling them down.
I did my Top Twenty first. I had 55 in no time at all. After several days of juggling books, I finally felt I had a number close to 100. I had 119. I still do. Plus I’ve added a few more books that I’d forgotten about—twenty-two to be exact. So I now have 41 books too many. Forty-one books that might supplant the forty-one I chose earlier. And I really like all 41 of them. The problem is I don’t like number 99—The Bridges of Madison County. The reason this book’s on my list is because of one of the other criteria I have—if I’ve read a book many times, it should qualify. I’ve read Bridges five times. Yes. I read a book I didn’t like five times. Why, you may ask? It was because I wanted to study it. The book was a best seller—in fact, it’s one of the bestselling books of the 20th century, with 50 million copies out there floating around. I have only one copy.
I studied this text because women loved the book. They also loved the film, produced by, directed by, and starring Clint Eastwood. I disliked the book so much I didn’t give the movie a fair look. I don’t plan to, either. It’s not my kind of movie. I do feel Clint Eastwood was the perfect man to play the role of perfect Robert Kincaid, however. Both men give high praise to themselves.
When the book became so popular, and I finally read it, I asked myself over and over, “Why do women love this book so much?” I came up with two reasons. Number one: Francesca is plain, forty-five, and has lines on her face—but Robert Kincaid loves her, takes her photograph, and adores the hell out of her. He worships Francesca. She is worshipped by a guy who is described as being “lithe . . . tall . . . hard . . . a magician of sorts . . . all lean muscle . . . full of power and intensity . . . a man who missed little.” This Kincaid guy is God’s Gift to Women. And he loves—not young, pretty girls—oh, no—he loves Francesca! He is looking for “intelligence” and “passion born of living,” and he “finds most young women unattractive” because “they had not lived long enough, or hard enough to possess those qualities that interested him.” Oh, come on. This plain-looking, Italian immigrant, Iowan house-wife, farm-working woman is what he’s been searching for all his life?
When I finished reading this book I was in shock. I hated it. I thought it was poorly written and difficult to believe, and I grew so tired of Robert Kincaid’s stellar qualities I wanted to throw up. Actually, what I wanted to do was beat the guy up. I wanted to kick his ass. He was a blowhard. I wanted to beat him over the head with one of his three Nikon cameras. I wanted to blacken one of his “photographer’s eyes that missed nothing.” I wanted to yank off his “well-used Red Wing field boots” and smash him over the head as he quoted W. B. Yeats—and Francesca, bless her soul, knew both the poem and the author. Good grief—do you know any Yeats’ poems you can rattle off? Would you know one if you heard it? I wouldn’t. Then again, I’m not Robert Kincaid, the best damned writer-photographer National Geographic ever had.
But . . . then I realized that Robert James Waller had done something I had never done—he had written a book exclusively to and for women. If I’d been a woman when the book came out, in the thirty to fifty-year-old range, I’d have read the book twenty times. But I wasn’t a woman. Not then, nor now. And I really got upset when the writer told the media there were strong similarities between the main character and himself.
The other reason I believe the book was a hit is because of what I call the “unresolved ending,” or the “lovers-meet-and-are-kept-apart-ever-after” ending. Think Romeo and Juliet, The Titanic, Love Story, and, of course, The Bridges of Madison County. I don’t like this type of ending. I prefer happy endings. I would never go, willingly, to see a version of Romeo and Juliet, for example. And I prefer My Fair Lady to Shaw’s original, Pygmalion. I do see a purpose in such movies and books, however—it’s the money. Tons and tons of it. Women (and some men, I’m sure) will pay anything to watch a movie or read a book about a “love that cannot be.” Waller, Eastwood, Shakespeare, Shaw, Segal, and Cameron made millions off their sad-ending stories. There is one movie I sort-of liked that had a sad ending—Griffin Loves Phoenix. The ending caught me by surprise. I cried and cried. The movie affected me tremendously, but would I call it great? Nope. I’ve also never watched it again. It’s too damn sad. I feel the same way about Love Story. I watched it once—that was enough. Life’s too short for me to watch a movie or read a book to make myself unhappy.
I do, however, wish I could be “the man” that Robert Kincaid was. What a dude! What a lover! He “was an animal,” he was “shamanlike,” he was from “haunted places,” and even though he was fifty-two, he could make love all night long! What a stud!
I can’t go on. You get the idea. I hated the book. It’s Number 99 because I studied it, hoping to learn how to become a better writer. I did learn what to do—write a sad-ending book. The problem is I can’t.
And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book. You tell me if it was worth my time to read this book five times. “There was no breeze, and the corn was growing.” What the hell? What’s he trying to say? Of course the damn corn was growing—they were in
according to Robert James Waller (maybe I should start using my middle name,
too) there are only two things to do in Iowa—watch
the corn grow and make love to someone else’s wife.
Did I mention how I wanted to grab the Camel cigarettes out of Kincaid’s pocket and smash them into his mouth? Did I say how I wanted to do this just before he did his morning routine of jogging for forty minutes, pumping out fifty pushups, and lifting his cameras as if they were weights? I also wanted to call up Francesca’s husband and tell him to come join me, and we’d beat the crap out of all three of ‘em—Kincaid, Waller, and Eastwood. Yes—this book infuriates me! I read it those five times, and never again. I make it number 99 on my list because I want everyone who reads this to know that I am capable of reading a book I hate. You should also admire my self control. I never did seek out Kincaid and beat him to a pulp. And I never squealed on Francesca, either.