Judging from the success of Robert James Waller's Bridges of Madison County and Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, middle-aged women in America are willing to be lied to and deceived if an author tells them that they are desirable. Waller first realized the power of this assertion after the publication of Bridges of Madison County, his first novel. It was a huge success, remaining on the Publisher's Weekly bestseller list for three full years, spending 13 weeks in the number one spot on the list . Not only did it flourish in the book business, but it also became a widely acclaimed movie equipped with well-known actors and actresses. Much of the support for Bridges was given by smaller independent booksellers as opposed to larger wholesale booksellers, giving the novel the quality of an almost underground success . After experiencing success with his first novel, Waller realized that there is a strict formula for success that was created in his first novel, and he recapitulates this formula in the creation of his subsequent novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, published in November of 1993. There is a rigid set of ingredients necessary for this recipe to create success. In order to fulfill the wishes of his audience, Waller uses a dishonest and overstated language and an element of adulterous sex. In addition, Waller also promotes a persona of himself as the main male character in both novels.
Although details may differ, the method used in writing these novels is fundamentally the same. The first main component of the formula is the language Waller uses. Many of his words are void of reality and overly melodramatic. Meretricious lines such as, "He [Michael Tillman] just didn't see how he could go on living his life without Jellie Braden next to him all the time," (Waller 79) are unrealistic. Taken logically, this line is a lie. Of course Michael Tillman can go on with his life without Jellie Braden. Even when he finally does commit to a relationship with Jellie, he never spends every moment with her; she actually leaves to go to India directly after they have made a serious commitment to each other.
Another example of the contrived language is found in the text when Michael says to Jellie, "?Give me all of you, and I'll give you back yourself when we have finished." The exaggeration and overstatement here are self-evident. The author uses this fabricated language to please his audience and allow them a fantasy indulgence. It is mendacious; many women who read this novel have most likely never been talked to like this before, and this is their chance to luxuriate in a dream of romance, however deceitful the language may be.
Another essential ingredient in the formula is the component of adultery. Waller makes no attempt to hide or scorn sex outside of the marriage bond. There seems to be no sign of remorse in either Jellie or Michael's mind indicating a feeling of contrition or guilt about their secretive affair behind the back of Jellie's husband. For example, when trying to set up a time to meet in order to be alone and intimate, Jellie nonchalantly says to Michael, "Would eleven push you too hard? I'd like to be gone when Jimmy [Jellie's husband] wakes up so that I don't have to think up some reason for going out" (Waller 82). She is clearly cheating on her husband with Michael Tillman, but displays no real concern about her actions.
The adultery in this novel is the only way the characters break the rules of society. Otherwise, they are seemingly good citizens who do not kill, steal, or commit crimes. Although they may not be robbing any banks in this novel, Jellie and Michael are certainly breaking a universally acknowledged rule of society. And even though a principal moral rule is broken, there are absolutely no consequences with which Jellie and Michael are forced to deal. The characters can behave as negligently and carelessly as they please outside of their marriages, but they will face no trouble. While thieves must go to jail for doing wrong, these characters are free of any punishment, and this makes the affair justifiable and admissible to the audience.
Jimmy Braden's reaction to the news of the affair between his wife and Michael Tillman is unbelievable. After being told about the ongoing affair between the two main characters, "Jimmy said that he understood how Jellie and Michael would be attracted to each other. His primary concern was, in his words, ?how we all carry on from here.' He seemed almost relieved, more worried about style than substance" (Waller 180). There is no chastisement from Jellie's husband or from the surrounding society. Such apathy from a husband seems incredulous. Michael's secretary even applauds the relationship when Michael is about to depart for India in search of Jellie. As Michael is leaving his office, she says, "I'll be here cheering for you. Go find her" (Waller 123). It seems ludicrous that an outsider of the situation would be applauding and supporting the affair, but in Waller's formula, an affair is an indulgence, not something warranting a punishment.
A further example of the leniency of cheating on a commitment is seen only months after Michael and Jellie have finally gotten into a legitimate relationship and Jellie retreats back to India. She meets "a handsome Frenchman who was smooth and attentive, who seemed to understand and appreciate the feelings of women," (Waller 193) and almost sleeps with him, but holds herself back for a reason that she does not understand. This promiscuous relationship never comes up between Michael and Jellie and she never feels a pang of guilt or regret regarding the issue. Once again, Jellie's breach of commitment slides away from the condescending punishment of society into an unrealistic world of fabricated sexual freedom.
Clearly, Jellie Braden is able to do as she pleases. She can have affairs with no consequences and the undeniable moral rules of society do not seem to apply to her actions as they would in reality. Michael Tillman narrates the novel so it may seem that his desires to obtain Jellie as a lover are fulfilled, but at closer inspection, one sees that it is ultimately Jellie's desires which are actualized. Almost all men she comes across in the novel want her, and she has the opportunity to pick and choose among these men as she likes with no impending rules or threatening consequences.
India itself serves as a location for the fulfillment of desires and pleasures. India becomes the marker of the exotic and sensual, and has no prospects of ominous punishments looming ahead. The essence of India in this novel is first revealed in one of Michael's initial comments after arriving in India. Directly after landing, Michael remarks, "The women. He's temporarily forgotten how beautiful were the Indian women, even the poorest ones. It was easy to fall in transient love every few seconds in India" (Waller 133). Clearly, India immediately becomes a symbol of untamed beauty and mysterious passion. Such a generalized and narrow view of India is reflective of British-colonial racism because instead of regarding India as the contemporary country it is, Waller instead disguises India as a sexual playground for free-spirited white tourists. The generalization lacks any unadulterated or honest vision of India or its culture. Instead, it represents a sort of perfected haven for wish fulfillment.
The language and adultery in this novel provide a fulfillment of the reader's desires. We assume from the popularity of this novel that it somehow satiates the romantic hungers lingering in the obviously unquenchable imaginations of middle-aged women in America. Assuming these women are lonely in unhappy marriages, a literary plot filled with romantic language and free-spirited affairs could possibly provide them with an emotional satisfaction used as a retreat from the reality of their lives. Readers are invited and encouraged to envision themselves as the sexy and untamed Jellie Braden. She is a woman desired by all and given a choice of a wide array of exciting and seductive males from which to choose. These American women are absolutely free to picture themselves in India, a foreign fantasy land in which to yield to all they feel they may lack in their lives: passion, exotic sex, and erotic and intense love language.
The final element critical to Waller's formula for best-seller success is a promoted persona of Waller himself. In both Bridges and Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, Waller produces obvious similarities between himself and the main male character of the novel. In Bridges, Waller's main character is Robert Kincaid, a free-spirited photographer for National Geographic. He is pensive and thoughtful, and often depicted as lonely. "Robert Kincaid was as alone as it's possible to be?he knew scarcely anyone well, nor they him. Gypsies make difficult friends for ordinary people, and he was something of a gypsy" (Waller 3-4). Michael Tillman in Slow Waltz is similarly a reclusive and seductive outdoorsman. Both characters are sexy to most women in the novel and seem unbound by all societal rules, living on the edge of life. Describing Tillman, Waller says, "People saw him as distant, and he was. People saw him as arrogant, but he wasn't, quite the opposite. He simply decided to go off by himself, go his own way" (W
aller 23). This description could almost perfectly describe the image the reader sees of Robert Kincaid. It is as if a carbon copy of the same man is created and placed into the two different novels.
Michael Tillman's experience is strikingly similar to that of Waller in that Tillman is a professor in a job that does not completely satisfy him. Describing Tillman as a professor, Waller writes, "As a teacher, he was different, but effective. Good students liked him, the middling ones were afraid of him. The poorer students avoided his classes. He wasn't a kindly Mr. Chips, and never would be, yet he respected grit and determination?and he reserved a special disdain for the talented ones who lazed through their student years" (Waller 23). His frustration with the students and faculty at the University is very similar to Robert James Waller's own experience as a professor. He taught management at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls and was promoted to dean of the business school for the University in 1979. As a professor, Waller was perceived as different and somewhat distant, very similar to the visual image of Michael Tillman. People saw Waller as "a hippie stuck in the sixties?who wor
e blue jeans and cowboy boots" (1994 Current Biography Yearbook 605). The similarities between Robert James Waller, Robert Kincaid, and Michael Tillman are significant, and it is interesting that in 1985, Waller resigned as the dean of the business school of the University of Northern Iowa because he suffered from a massive anxiety attack. He continued teaching classes on a more lenient schedule, but he became frustrated quickly with the alleged narrow-mindedness of the students there. He left the school in 1991 with an unpaid leave of absence. Although Tillman never experiences any stress or anxiety attacks, there is no doubt in the readers mind that he sometimes feels dissatisfied in his profession with his students and colleagues, just as Waller felt.
The similarities between Tillman and Waller go oven further than their common teaching careers. Waller was an avid basketball player growing up, shooting 200 to 300 baskets a day. He recieved a four-year scholarship to the University of Iowa for basketball in 1957, but lost interest in the sport after only a year and transferred to the University of Northern Iowa. Almost identically, Micheal Tillman is the high school and college basketball star until he injures his ankle playing in college. Both men have a history of a passionate and ubruptly ended love for basketball. (People Weekly: 11/8/93)
Lastly, and almost too ironic to be true, four years after publishing this novel, Waller took his family to India, the sexual playground that Slow Waltz uses as its free-of-consequence location. It is on this trip to India that Robert James Waller finally tells his wife Georgia about his affair with the Waller's landscaper, Linda Bow. Unlike the fantasy of his novel, India now has real-world consequences. His wife quickly returned home to Alpine, Texas from India and filed for a divorce, which was finalized in August of 1997. (People Weekly: 10/13/97)
This wish-fulfilling formula has sold amazingly well to the American public, as Slow Waltz remained on the Publisher's Weekly best-seller list for twenty-nine weeks from November of 1993 until May of 1994. A close inspection of American demographics for the 1990s indicate that the contemporary family structure reveals many women are inclined to crave the fantasy indulgence available in Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend. It is clear that marriage in out society is seen as an ideal, not a reality. "We are a very marriage-happy society. There's a basic ideology that building a family means stability," and this supposition could potentially lead many women into marriages for which they are not ready, but merely getting into because they feel they must conform to the assumed ideal. Given this assumption, there are presumably many women in America finding themselves in marriages that are utterly unhappy. The age-old ideal of marriage is crashing, and these women are searching for solace in the midst of the confusion
caused by the wreckage of a marriage. Waller creates a comfort and alleviation from the loneliness in his formula in this novel, which allows women readers to feel that it is possible to be desirable and sexy like Jellie Braden.
The high sales for this novel, almost 2 million copies already sold in November of 1993, are evidence that this formula is selling...and selling successfully. Demographics for contemporary marriage indicate that, due to the erroneous ideals associated with marriage, there is a large amount of women in America that are in unhappy marriages. Judging from the popularity of fictional romance novels among women and the feminine marketing of the novel, it is assumed that these women are the majority of the population reading this novel and being affected by the formula.
Waller targets this audience and convinces them, through a structured formula, that they are desirable. He showers his audience with meretricious language that holds no thread of truth or honesty. He sprinkles them with unpunished and passionate love affairs outside of marriage. He allows them to indulge in this language and adultery without concern for reality or logic, because reality is unimportant for Waller. He then promotes an image of himself through the main male character, making the role more personal to himself, thus presumably easier for him to write. Waller's audience finishes this novel and feels the possibility of becoming a Jellie Braden: passionate, sexy, and dangerously wanted by wholly every man.