Bridges of Madison County is a slender, quick-read love story that was written in only 14 days by author, professor, artist and musician Robert James Waller. Waller got the idea for the story about Francesca, an Iowa housewife and her week-long love aff
air and life-long love of the traveling photographer Robert Kincaid, after traveling around Iowa himself photographing the bridges. These pictures are used in the book as chapter headers. Bridges of Madison County was published by Warner Books in hardba
ck in April of 1992. Warner set out to publish only a modest number of the book for it's first printing, and the immediate reception to the book was only lukewarm. Reviews were mixed, to say the least, and in 1992 it held an average position of 11.1 on
the Bestsellers List, which although is not shabby, told nothing of the books amazing reception to come in the next years, and the line-up of number one spots that Bridges of Madison County would hold on many bestseller lists. What is it that made this b
ook start out slowly but then soar to the top such that almost every American has either heard about, read the book or seen the movie?
By 1998, Bridges of Madison County has sold over 50 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 25 languages. This book reached number one on the New York Times Book Seller list for 13 weeks and spent 3 years on the list. Bridges of Madison C
ounty even beat out Gone With the Wind in 1995 as the best-selling fiction book of all time. But in the beginning, by looking at the professional reviews that this novel by first-time self-proclaimed "eclectic" Robert James Waller received, one would ne
ver have predicted it's success to come.
Many reviews responded negatively to it storyline, calling it "contrived," "trite," and "unbelievable." Some reviews compared to other soft-focus romance books, such as the Harlequin novels. Many reviewers had a hard time taking in the love affair of t
wo older people, and felt that they were acting like teenagers. One reviewer, Paula Carnes of the Los Angelos Times felt it was an insult to women's minds and hearts, and felt it demeaned normal marriages. Phrases like the "story of a life wasted," "for
larger pop culture," "unrealistic dialogue," and "sweet but flat" flowed from many reviewers in the years 1992 to 1993.
Other reviewers obviously agreed with the millions of readers who made Bridges of Madison County a best seller. Charles Champlin of the Los Angelos Times Book Review caught the essence of this book in describing it as a "sleeper...a nice little book tha
t takes off slowly, without benefit of splashy advertising, book-club promotion or a flood of rave reviews, but that ends up on the best-seller list the old fashioned way-because readers fall in love with it and tell their friends."
Many argue that especially in the 1980's and 90's, books become bestsellers mainly because of the popularity of the author. Authors like John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steele and Ann Rice seem to dominate the list, almost regardless of the quality
of their latest work. It is doubtful, however, that Bridges of Madison County's success can be attributed to the same phenomenon. The author, Robert James Waller was relatively unknown and this was his first novel. He had published some short stories
before, but was more known to his friends and family as a musician and a business professor. This was Waller's first novel, and was written because of a song he remembered while photographing the bridges in Winterset, Iowa. The success of this first nov
el prompted Waller to continue publishing. He wrote and published four more books between November, 1993 and October, 1995. Bridges of Madison County and his second novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend were even on the bestsellers list together at one point
Bridges of Madison County had a slow start and many unflattering reviews. Yet Warner Books, it's publisher, lauds the book as a "blockbuster bestseller in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, --everywhere!" As aforementioned, there are over 9 millio
n copies in print. What is it about this novel that caught the publics attention?
One important fact to note about Bridges of Madison County is the way it was advertised and sold to many of it's first readers. Warner Books seemed to know that they were holding a winner; they published 29,00 copies of the first edition. That number i
s about three times higher than what would be expected for a book written by a first-time unknown author. Bridges of Madison County was next realized for the hit that it was by independent booksellers who pushed the book in their stores. There is a stor
e in Florida, Kingsley's, who offered a money-back guarantee on the book. This book store has sold about 1,600 copies of the book, and only 2 out of those came back for their money-back offer. The book was pushed by independent booksellers, and their cu
stomers obviously loved the book and spread it's appeal to their friends. Soon, even Oprah was doing a feature on the book on her day-time talk show. A successful movie from Amblin entertainment followed, and Waller has since been successfully publishin
g other novels.
Bridges of Madison County received it's high sales volume through basic word of mouth, since the early reviews would not have urged people to run to the stores. The novel's plot is fairly simple. A married farmers wife meets a traveling photographer on
e summer weekend when her husband and children are away. Francesca has a simple, satisfactory life, but her excitement level is certainly lacking. The photographer, Robert Kincaid shows her a side of life full of change, travel and passion. The two hav
e a whirlwind romance, and Kincaid offers to take Francesca away from her mundane life. Francesca can't leave her family however. She explains that she could never bring such pain and humiliation to her family. In a way, she gives up her dream to keep
her family together. Robert leaves to continue traveling, but is always on Francesca's mind, as she is on his. They have only a couple of written contacts over the years. Kincaid dies, and sends his belongings to Francesca. When Francesca dies, she le
aves a letter of explanation to her children, and ask that her ashes be thrown off of the bridge that her and Kincaid met on. It is a sweet, short, easy to read novel, and there are several possible reasons why this book came to be such a bestseller.
First of all, this book was written in 1992, in an era where the divorce rate is around 50%. Faith in marriage, and in true love, seems to be fading in the 1990's. This is an era of multiple marriages, multiple divorces, affairs being more commonplace
, and more and more people choosing not to marry but simply to live with each other. There seems to be a great amount of cynicism surrounding the concept of real "love." In fact, in 1993, John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, a book exalt
ing the confusion between the sexes, was a best seller as well on the non-fiction list. That certainly doesn't mean that people don't crave real love however. It is a topic that is less and less often written about. The 90's are also an era in which the
"traditional" family is often considered archaic. Family, and raising one's children, often play a second role after careers. Whereas in the 1950's most mothers stayed at home to raise their children while the fathers were the primary money makers, in
the 1990's some 70% of mothers are also working to supplement the high costs of living. These norms of the 1990's may help explain why Bridges of Madison County caught the American public's attention despite the early negative reviews.
In this story, Francesca is in the traditional role of a mother and homemaker. She is faithfully married to her husband, Richard Johnson and has a simple, yet seemingly mundane life. The photographer, Robert Kincaid brings the passion, newness and even
foreignness that Francesca's life, and possibly many of the readers of this book, is missing. With Robert, she seems to find a new life, a sexual and emotional rebirth. This may have appealed to many of the readers who are convinced that such passion a
nd intense feeling isn't going to happen to them. If Francesca can have this rebirth, then perhaps so can the reader. In a world full of divorce and scandalous affairs that are broadcast over TV talk shows and newspaper, this love affair doesn't quite
fit into the same scheme. Instead of berating Francesca for cheating on Richard, the reader finds herself enthralled in what Francesca has found. If the book had taken a different turn, however, and Francesca had run off with Robert, the books readers m
ay not have loved it as much. Although everyone loved what Francesca had found, the readers still didn't want Francesca's family to suffer like so many families were suffering because of infidelity in the 1990's. The fact that Francesca refuses to leave
her family leaves the reader with a sense of conflict...half of the reader wants to her to keep that passion, and half wants her to "do the right thing." This book is a master at turning sense of propriety upside down. Waller's writing at this importan
t juncture of the book is masterful as well. This is on of those parts in books that make it impossible to put the book down. "As much as I want you and want to be with you and part of you, I can't tear myself away from the realness of my responsibiliti
es. If you force me, physically or mentally, to go with you, as I said earlier, I cannot fight that. I don't have the strength, given my feelings for you. In spite of what I said about not taking the road away from you, I'd go because of my own selfish
wanting of you. But please don't make me. Don't make me give this up, my responsibilities. I cannot do that and live with the thought of it. If I leave now, those thoughts would turn me into something other than the woman you have come to love."
This eloquent passage seems to capture what many women feel, and what the readers half-way want Francesca to do. In this part, as in many other parts, the reader is joined with Francesca. We are rooting for her and aching for her, and can't help but wo
nder what we would do in her place. One of the most memorable lines in the book comes from Robert after Francesca tells him this.
" I have one thing to say, one thing only; I'll never say it another time, to anyone, and I ask you to remember it: in a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty come only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live."
This kind of dialogue is almost unbearable to the reader. One thing that makes this book so good, and so understandably a best seller are these kinds of masterful writing. Waller seems to put the language of the heart into printed words. Many readers c
an read this book and say "yes, yes" to themselves. There is not much chance that readers of this book could not feel the passion of Francesca and Robert, and feel some sort of emotion.
One important fact to realize is that this love story was written by a male, yet obviously would affect the female reading population the most. It is always on the female readers mind that this was written by a male, yet he seems to understand so much a
bout love and can create 2 so perfectly matched lovers. It gives female readers hope that men still do exist who know how to fall in love and keep up love properly. In the 1990's, this is a sentiment seemingly echoed by the majority of women. Waller al
so didn't make Francesca the victim of a love-scam. He didn't have Kincaid simply use the naive housewife for a weekend affair. He created Kincaid's character to have the same emotions as Francesca. In fact, while Francesca stays with her family and he
r sort of love for her husband, Kincaid never gets married. He holds Francesca in his mind as his only love. This again will appeal to female readers, who would like to meet a man such as this. Waller created a bestseller by making characters that are
on one hand pretty believable, yet also seemingly out of the reach of normal readers. It is not surprising that after this book was published and became a best seller, the real bridges in Iowa became popular visiting spots. It is as if all the readers w
anted a piece of the romance that Robert and Francesca had; a romance that seems just out of reach, yet still believable, and still what many want, even in the 1990's.
Another facet of Bridges of Madison County that could have helped it's reach its bestseller status is as simple as the number of pages. This book is an easy read, only 90 pages and doesn't require a college degree to understand it's nuances. In the bus
y, hurried life of the 1990's, it seems more and more that people are looking for the short, easy way, with their cars, their food, their technology and perhaps even their leisure reading. Bridges of Madison County does not require a month long reading c
ommitment. This fact, simple as it may be, may be important in looking at the amazingly high sales figures for this novel.
It is hard to pin down for certain exactly what elements helped raise this novel to bestseller status. It seems reasonable to assume that a combination of many factors may be responsible. First, the times that this book was written in were prime to acc
ept a simple love story. Secondly, the themes of this book could be pleasurable to both romantics and love cynics. Finally, the simplicity and unassumingness of this novel help the reader glide through the romance of Robert and Francesca.