The Unexamined Life Examined In 'Mrs. Bridge' Best-selling mystery novelist James Patterson may be known for his thrillers, but the little book that profoundly influenced his writing was far less conspicuous. Mrs. Bridge, the tale of a Kansas City husband and wife, would stay with him forever.


The Unexamined Life Examined In 'Mrs. Bridge'

The Unexamined Life Examined In 'Mrs. Bridge'

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Mrs. Bridge: A Novel
By Evan S. Connell
Paperback, 256 pages
List price: $14

Read an excerpt

Here's a surprise for you: The people who know me, really know me, think of me as an underachiever.

I was a Ph.D. English candidate at Vanderbilt. Everybody thought I would go on to write serious fiction.

Fooled 'em, didn't I?

My influences as a writer weren't best-sellers, and certainly not mysteries. They were novels like Our Lady of the Flowers, Rabbit, Run, Ninety-Two in the Shade, The Sot-Weed Factor — whose writers were as different from one another as Jerzy Kosinski and John Hawkes, and Saul Bellow.

I wouldn't say that anyone else must read anything.

A novel to consider, one of my favorites, and probably the one that influenced me most, is the story of an ordinary middle-class family living in Kansas City. Its title: Mrs. Bridge. It was written by Evan Connell and published in 1959.

Mrs. Bridge is told from the point of view of the mother, India Bridge. A companion novel, published 10 years later, tells essentially the same story from the point of her lawyer husband. It's called Mr. Bridge.

In one famous scene, Mr. Bridge refuses to let the family leave their dinner table at the country club — even though a tornado is thundering their way.

Evan Connell wrote, "The lights of the country club went out ... streaks of lightning flickered intermittently, illuminating a terrible cloud just outside rushing toward them like a kettle of black water. ... In darkness and silence she waited, uncertain whether the munching noise was made by her husband or the storm."

Since his first novel won the Edgar Award in 1976, James Patterson's books have sold more than 170 million copies. He writes full time and lives in Florida with his family. Deborah Feingold hide caption

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Deborah Feingold

Since his first novel won the Edgar Award in 1976, James Patterson's books have sold more than 170 million copies. He writes full time and lives in Florida with his family.

Deborah Feingold

When the tornado finally passes, and the other country club members traipse up from the basement, Mr. Bridge says, "There! I told you, didn't I?"

Both Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge capture the sadness, and boredom, of the unexamined life. The Bridge family's material needs are all met — and yet confusion and futility close in and suffocate them.

Connell describes their situation with great compassion, and precision. This succinctness, and the many short chapters in Mrs. Bridge, were definitely an influence on my writing.

Writing about Mrs. Bridge in The New York Times, a reviewer said, "Mr. Connell's novel is written in a series of 117 brief episodes. This method looks, and is, rather unusual — it enables any writer who uses it to show, with clarity and compactness, how characters react to representative episodes and circumstances."

I think you'll find Mrs. Bridge a serious, but highly entertaining novel. It manages to be comic and satirical, but also kind and gentle. I loved it the first, second, and third time I read it — and it certainly helped inspire my writing style. Short chapters, compactness, and clarity.

However — please, don't blame my shortcomings on Evan Connell. But do read Mrs. Bridge.

Since his first novel won the Edgar Award in 1976, James Patterson's books have sold more than 170 million copies. He is the author of the Alex Cross novels, the most popular detective series of the past 25 years. Patterson also writes the best-selling Women's Murder Club novels and the top-selling New York detective series of all time, featuring detective Michael Bennett. He lives in Florida with his family.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Mrs. Bridge'

Mrs. Bridge
By Evan S. Connell
Paperback, 256 pages
List price: $14

Chapter 1. Maid From Madras

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were giving a party, not because they wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr. Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.

Altogether some eighty people showed up in the course of the evening. They stood around and wandered around, eating, drinking, talking, and smoking. Grace and Virgil Barron were there — Grace sunburned, freckled, and petite, and looking rather pensive; the Arlens arrived in a new Chrysler; the Heywood Duncans were there; and Wilhelm and Susan Van Metre, both seeming withered, sober, and at the wrong party; Lois and Stuart Montgomery; Noel Johnson, huge and alone, wearing a paper cap; Mabel Ong trying to begin serious discussions; and, among others, the Beckerle sisters in beaded gowns which must have been twenty years old, both sisters looking as though they had not for an instant forgotten the morning Mrs. Bridge entertained them in anklets. Even Dr. Foster, smiling tolerantly, with a red nose, stopped by for a cigarette and a whisky sour and chided a number of the men about Sunday golf.

There was also an automobile salesman named Beachy Marsh who had arrived very early in a double-breasted pinstripe business suit, and, being ill at ease, sensing that he did not belong, did everything he could think of to be amusing. He was not a close friend but it had been necessary to invite him along with several others.

Mrs. Bridge rustled about her large, elegant, and brilliantly lighted home, checking steadily to see that everything was as it should be. She glanced into the bathrooms every few minutes and found that the guest towels, like pastel handkerchiefs, were still immaculately overlapping one another — at evening's end only two had been disturbed, a fact which would have given Douglas, had he known, a morose satisfaction — and she entered the kitchen once to recommend that the extra servant girl, hired to assist Harriet, pin shut the gap in the breast of her starched uniform.

Around and around went Mrs. Bridge, graciously smiling, pausing here and there to chat for a moment, but forever alert, checking the turkey sandwiches, the crackers, the barbecued sausages, quietly opening windows to let out the smoke, discreetly removing wet glasses from mahogany table tops, slipping away now and then to empty the solid Swedish crystal ashtrays.

And Beachy Marsh got drunk. He slapped people on the shoulder, told jokes, laughed uproariously, and also went around emptying the ashtrays of their cherry-colored stubs, all the while attempting to control the tips of his shirt collar, which had become damp from perspiration and were rolling up into the air like horns.

Following Mrs. Bridge halfway up the carpeted stairs he said hopefully, "There was a young maid from Madras, who had a magnificent ass; not rounded and pink, as you probably think — it was gray, had long ears, and ate grass."

"Oh, my word!" replied Mrs. Bridge, looking over her shoulder with a polite smile but continuing up the stairs, while the auto salesman plucked miserably at his collar.

Reprinted from Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Copyright 2005. With permission of the publisher, Counterpoint.