Evan S. Connell's Mrs Bridge is one of those delightful books that is a joy to read from start to finish.
First published in 1959 and set largely before the Second World War, it is not a conventional book by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, it breaks every rule in the novel-writing book: there's no real plot, the structure is episodic, the female character is nice but bland, and the setting is purely domestic. Yet there's something about the simplicity of the story and its depiction of universal truths that makes it especially appealing.
The book basically charts Mrs Bridge's married life — her wedding, motherhood, middle-age and then widowhood — in short, but beautifully controlled and sensitively written, chapters (some of them are only a page long).
Nothing of great importance happens in these vignettes, but they highlight Mrs Bridge's kindness, her naivety, her desire to please others, her attitudes on race and class, and her constant inability to understand her three children — particularly her youngest, Douglas, whose every action seems to puzzle her.
As you progress through the book you come to realise that Mrs Bridge is the quintessential housewife and mother, putting her family's needs before her own, as women of that time were wont to do. But as her life moves on in relentless fashion, she begins to experience a rather niggling feeling — that perhaps there is more to life than domestic drudgery. (Though I should point out Mrs Bridge's version of drudgery doesn't stretch much beyond writing grocery lists and doing the odd bit of cooking — she has domestic help to do all the rest.)
But in her attempts to fill the days that yawn before her with all manner of "hobbies" — bridge, shopping, visits to the country club, driving her expensive car, she even takes art classes at one point — she can never quite sustain the motivation to take these activities all that seriously. Indeed, she approaches everything half-heartedly, almost as if she knows there's no real point in devoting too much time and effort into something that her husband will think trivial or silly.
At one point, she considers going to a therapist, as many of her friends are doing, only to have Mr Bridge, a busy lawyer, poo-poo the idea.
A sad but funny read
This might make the book sound a little dull and serious, but it's actually a delightfully funny read. The humour works because Mrs Bridge seems constantly perplexed by things or fails to comprehend situations or conversations. It's not that she's dumb; she's just a little unsophisticated in the ways of the world.
Of course, it is also a sad read, because you see the lost opportunities and the failed connections, even if Mrs Bridge doesn't.
I'm now looking forward to reading Mr Bridge, published 10 years later, that tells the husband's side of the story.