In early 18th century in Peru, a famous suspension footbridge over a deep gorge broke and took the lives of five people into the gulf below. After this unfortunate accident, Brother Juniper is haunted by the question: “Why did this happen to those five?” As quoted in the book: If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in a human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan. Pondering over the cosmic order, Brother Juniper investigates the secret lives of those five people in rich detail in an attempt to discover the reason behind their demise.
Here is when Thornton Wilder excels in introducing us to the intimate details of those five people who seem to be united only in their longing for acceptance, and love. There is a rich, aristocratic and elderly Marquesa suffering from unrequited maternal love and pangs of loneliness, spends her time composing brilliant and elaborate letters to her cold hearted daughter Clara in Spain. Accompanying her is little Pepita, an bewildered and distressed teenage orphan girl trying to live up to the high expectations of an Abbesses who is grooming her as a successor. There is Esteban, the poor twin who is left alone and bereft in an uncomprehending world after his twin brother dies. Uncle Pio is a wise wanderer, a man of exceptional talent who has devoted the best part of his life for the flourishing career of actress Camila Perichole. He becomes disappointed when actress Camila Perichole renounces her stage career for becoming a Lady and shuns herself from the world when she contracts small pox. Uncle Pio requests Camila Perichole to send her youngest sickly son Jamie with him to Lima so that he could educate the boy into a gentleman. Little Jaime joins his Uncle Pio only to loose his life on the fated bridge.
The relationship between the identical twin brothers Manuel and Esteban, when Manuel falls in love with actress Camila Perichole is beautifully highlighted here. “Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.”
The beauty of this book lies in the description of these five characters. Thornton puts to use all the finery of the English language to delicately highlight the nuances of these five central characters. Sample these observations on Marquesa’s Son-in-Law. “the Conde delighted in her letters, but he thought that when he had enjoyed the style he had extracted all their richness and intention, missing (as most readers do) the whole purport of literature, which is the notation of the heart.”
Though we still are not sure whether the loss of these five people is by accident or by divine intention, this final words from Abbess sums up the meaning of love in life: “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”