In recent years, series novels have developed their own literary niche. Independent authors especially seem bent on writing one book, then using sequels to milk its characters and scenarios for all they’re worth. Most of the book marketing advice I’ve read lately assumes and encourages this trend.
Evan S. Connell may not have intended to write a sequel when he published Mrs Bridge in 1959. Its companion novel, Mr. Bridge, didn’t appear until ten years later. By 1969, times had changed, and so had the domestic landscape. The breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother seemed doomed to extinction by women’s liberation and other social upheavals. Accordingly, reactions to both Mrs Bridge and Mr. Bridge may depend heavily on the age and perspective of the individual reader.
On its surface, Mrs Bridge is about as interesting as a grocery list. A Kansas City woman marries, becomes a housewife, raises a family, shops and socializes. What could be more ordinary? It is the very dispassionate nature of Connell’s narration that exposes the true nature of a generic middle-class American family.
The novel is a series of anecdotes, told mostly from Mrs. Bridge’s viewpoint. She is a creature of what she perceives to be other people’s expectations. Her values are those her parents taught her. She judges other people, including her children, by their dress and table manners. She reads books because others read them. She tries to learn a foreign language because it seems she ought to. In conversation she straddles neutrality, having no opinions of her own. In other words, she plays everything safe.
Mrs. Bridge has the best of intentions. She tries to mentor her children, but her faith in propriety makes her powerless to understand and be close to them. As time passes, she comes to realize that she is trapped in a cage of her own construction.
Mr. Bridge presents the family from the husband’s viewpoint. Walter Bridge is the ideal husband, a hard-working lawyer, faithful to his wife, dedicated to his three children, doing what is expected of him. As a result, he resents anyone who steps beyond the moral boundaries he has set for himself, such as the acquaintance who wears bright yellow socks and has a romance with a younger woman. Mr. Bridge admits no flaws in himself and never forgets the mistakes others make.
The Bridges adhere so rigidly to the accepted values of their class that they alienate their children. Walter, the more hard-headed of the two parents, even manages to frustrate his wife and others who try to break through his walls of propriety. He thinks himself a tolerant man but is quick to rationalize his racial prejudices and judges his children’s friends by their appearance or by their parents’ standing in the community.
To his credit, Mr. Bridge does have moments of introspection. Though he criticizes his son’s behavior, he remembers himself at that age and tries to help him. His obsession with Dr. Sauer’s yellow socks spurs him to indulge in an act of whimsy that serves only to make him uncomfortable. When he takes his wife to Europe, it’s because he feels he owes it to her, not because he enjoys it.
Walter Bridge cannot let people get close to him. “Sometimes,” his daughter Ruth observes, “you treat us all like strangers.” It’s a sad story when you consider that Mr. Bridge means well. The tragedy is that he sees the world only from his own isolated viewpoint.
Of the two novels, I found Mrs Bridge more succinct and thus more enjoyable. However, both are well-written and well worth the reader’s time as they invite us to compare the characters to ourselves.
Mrs Bridge contains one mildly suggestive sex scene, one instance of profanity and one derogatory racial reference. Mr. Bridge contains one racial slur, several profane outbursts and minor vulgarities, and a suggestive sex scene.