Post Road Magazine #18

Evan S. Connell's MRS. BRIDGE

Lauren Grodstein

I taught Mrs. Bridge again earlier this summer, to a group of graduate students who had never before encountered Evan S. Connell's miniaturist portrait of a country club matron living in Kansas City between the World Wars. The book is a masterpiece, but it leaves a person feeling queasy. Mrs. Bridge is too helpless and naïve to admire, too honest to dismiss. Her circumstances, beautifully rendered in Connell's concise chapterlets, are unlike the circumstances of anyone I've ever met. Yet I think I understand her.

My students found Mrs. Bridge easy to mock, as I once did. Why not? This is a woman who doesn't know what homosexuals are. She marvels at how often first babies are born prematurely. She tells her kids, after a friend commits suicide, that the woman died from eating bad fish.

My students agreed that Mrs. Bridge was a sad comment on the privileged American mid-century woman. She yearns to read classics, to learn a new language; instead she votes the way her husband told her to. The novel ends with our heroine widowed, stuck in her car, in the garage, the snow falling all around her. She can go nowhere; she never could.

Now, as I write this, a babysitter marches my son around the Luxembourg Gardens. I traveled to Paris by myself last week, a squirming eleven month old baby on my lap, a sixth floor apartment with a broken elevator awaiting me. I am here in Paris to teach at a writing seminar while my husband is at home in New Jersey; it would never have occurred to him to tell me not to come, nor to tell me to do so. We have a proudly laissez-faire marriage, utterly un-Bridgian. And so I left: I packed up, found the passports, boarded the flight, and went sleepless for thirtysix hours. I worried about money, I communed with my Parisian colleagues, I bought French baby food. I hustled the baby up and down many flights of stairs. I bruised my legs and scored a French babysitter. In my free time, I read this, from Mr. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge's companion:

He wondered again, as he used to wonder when they were first married, how she had managed to live this much of her life with such simplicity, unaware of treachery, suspicion, malice, guile, and so many other means whereby life is lived… She was passing through life with a neutral expression, utterly failing to recognize the world in which she lived: a desperate, harsh, remorseless world where everybody knew there was a piece of paper inside a Chinese fortune cookie.

Mrs. Bridge, you see, ate the paper inside the cookie because she did not know any better. I could pity this; I could scorn it; I have done both. But today—today—well, I am tired today, and the day is not half over. I know how lucky I am to be in Paris. I also know I'm alone in a foreign country with a crotchety baby and no safety guards on the windows and a crib he refuses to sleep in. Who let me do this?

What do you mean I don't need anyone's permission?

Mrs. Bridge spends her own days shopping, lunching, trying to figure out how to waste her time. The maid cooks and cleans, the laundress launders, the kids are self-sufficient. And though she wants to learn new things, buys records, picks up books, in the end she always retreats to the place she is most comfortable, behind her husband's opinions. She would not come to Paris by herself, but if her husband would take her—and he did take her that once—she'd have a marvelous time.

I do not want to be Mrs. Bridge. But now, for the first time, I can see the appeal. This very afternoon I'd like to live in a world where it was expected someone else would take care of me, a world where Mrs. Bridge would feel at home. Instead I'll be marching up six flights of stairs, a baby in one arm, his stroller in the other, relying on myself again, for better and also for worse.

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