Pros: realistic portrayal of a society matron in the WWII era
Cons: so utterly depressing I can't wait to be rid of it
I first read the novel Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, along with its companion, Mr. Bridge, shortly after seeing the Merchant-Ivory movie based on the novels. When I started going through my shelves and boxes of books to determine what I should keep and what should go, I was eager to reread these two books, sure that they would stay in my permanent collection. I'm unsure now whether time or circumstance has changed my opinion.
::: Life of the Idle Rich :::
India Bridge is a woman as common as her name was uncommon. Set in the years leading up to, and during, World War II, she leads a life stereotypical of the country club set in those days. A steady parade of manual servants does most of the work around the home, and Mrs. Bridge's main pastimes are shopping, socializing, and worrying, although not necessarily in that order. Her husband, a successful lawyer, puts in long hours at the office, and she seems adrift, trying to make herself busy yet never finding the time to do the things she wants to do.
The Bridges have three children: Ruth, an exotic beauty who never quite fits into the family structure; Carolyn, who has all the intelligence and "sameness" that Ruth seems to lack; and Douglas, the youngest, who seems to be very much all boy. As the novel progresses, Mrs. Bridge seems at times confused and left behind by each of her children in turn, and nearly abandoned by her husband.
::: Short and Bittersweet :::
Connell's writing style (which he continues with Mr. Bridge) consists of very short chapters, often less than a page in length, containing small snapshots of Mrs. Bridge's life. Reading Mrs. Bridge feels almost like looking at a photo album; small slices of life are there for you to peruse at your leisure, but you never can get quite the entire picture.
When I first read Mrs. Bridge, I was struck by the realism that Connell managed to convey in these short snippets; the constant underlying terror of Mrs. Bridge is palpable, as she feels that the world moves around her and past her, leaving her ever more in the dark. She has a repertoire of things she can say to keep the conversation moving, never letting on what she doesn't know, and always afraid to speak her mind or even disagree with her husband. In one scene, she and her husband are dining out at the club when a tornado warning is communicated to all the patrons by the steward. Her husband would rather continue to eat his steak rather than flee to the safety of the club's basement, and not once does Mrs. Bridge think to leave him and seek safety for herself, but rather goes to another table to get her husband some more butter, since the wait staff has disappeared.
The realism of Mrs. Bridge, though, felt weighty and depressing. It may be harder for me, as a stay-at-home mother myself who gave up my career to take care of my children, to view Mrs. Bridge as anything but a woman to be pitied. So completely has she given herself over to her husband and family that she has no real interests, and feels almost like a husk of a person. One scene in particular made me want to slap both her and her daughter; her daughter comes home searching for a pair of shoes she wanted to wear to an informal dance, and upon learning that they have been given to charity, pitches such a fit about wearing a different pair that Mrs. Bridge abandons a self-study lesson she was working on to go replace the shoes for her daughter. Every small moment that contains a flicker of personality and hope that Mrs. Bridge will find herself is as quickly squashed as this.
The last scene of the novel (and believe me, this gives nothing of the plot away) was set up differently in the movie version, and didn't convey the utter hopelessness of her life. As Mrs. Bridge is pulling out of her garage in the Lincoln she never did feel comfortable driving, the car stalls as it has often done in the past. She tries to exit the car, but discovers that the car has stalled in such a way that all four doors are unable to be opened, and there she sits, trapped in a car that symbolizes her life. It left me with such an utter feeling of despair that I couldn't wait to be done with the book and toss it in the pile of books I don't have any desire to read again.