Revisiting a Viral Sensation 30 Years Later

Manuscripts

If you were a bookish kid — and I’m willing to bet you were since you’re reading this newsletter — you probably have a memory of some very grown-up book that made its way into your awareness. Maybe you picked up your aunt’s Jackie Collins novel and didn’t even realize how much of it was flying right over your head. Maybe you tried your hand at Stephen King at far too tender an age (who among us doesn’t have this story?) and slept with the lights on for a week or five. Or maybe, like me, you came home from school one day in May of 1993 and saw your mom watching an Oprah episode about The Bridges of Madison County a full three years before Oprah would start her famous book club.

Before I went a-googling for it, I couldn’t recall exactly what happened in that Oprah episode — which is a truly wild 44 minutes of television — but I can’t forget what happened after: the slim, peach-colored hardback with an illustration of one of the titular covered bridges appeared on our coffee table. 

bridges of madison county by robert james waller

My mom was reading it. My friends’ moms were reading it. All of the women at the neighborhood pool that summer were reading it. I feel like I remember seeing a copy on my teacher’s desk at some point, but who knows if that’s real. What I’m saying is: the book was everywhere. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing my first viral book moment. And I wanted in! I sneak-read my mom’s copy, felt Very Mature for a couple days, and have spent the ensuing 30 years sporadically remembering that Bridges was a big deal for a little while. 

But HOO BOY, I had no idea how big of a deal it had been until I got curious about popular books of years past and found it high atop the list of the best-selling adult novels of 1993. At first blush, I assumed this had to be due to what we now know as The Oprah Effect. As I realized when I went back to reread the book and see if it might fit into more recent viral trends, it’s not that straightforward.

Like its contemporary successors, Bridges uses writing that is okay at best to present an idealized version of love, sex, and romance that reality can’t possibly compete with.

Robert James Waller’s debut novel, The Bridges of Madison County, was first published in April 1992. Its unnamed narrator tells us that he has written the story at the request of main character Francesca’s children. After her death, they found journals in which she documented the extra-marital affair that defined her life, and they believe the story is too compelling, too inspirational, too important to remain a secret. 

Here’s the tl;dr version: Francesca grew up in Naples, Italy, and in her early 20s, fell passionately in love with a man her family didn’t approve of. After breaking it off, she met an American soldier named Richard Johnson (yep, Dick Johnson, I see it too), who was a safe, good-enough option. That’s right, friends. Our girl Francesca settled. She and Richard moved back to his native Iowa, where they have lived on a small farm in a rural community for the last 20 years, when the story begins. 

It’s the mid-1960s, and Francesca is 45. Richard and their two teenage children are out of town for the week at a 4-H conference-type event when Francesca is sitting on the porch one afternoon when a handsome stranger driving a beat-up pickup truck comes down the drive. His name is Robert Kincaid. He’s a photographer who has been commissioned by National Geographic to capture images of the seven famous covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa. He has found six of them, but he can’t seem to locate the seventh. Can she point him in the right direction? She can do that, and then some. 

Overcome by something she can’t identify, Francesca offers to show Robert the way rather than simply giving him directions to the bridge a mere two miles down the road. She hops in his truck, but not before noticing how “hard” his body is and thinking that he moves like a leopard or cheetah and gives off a “shamanlike” vibe. They make their way to the bridge, where she acts as his assistant while he “makes pictures” until the light goes down. She invites him back to the farm for a tension-filled dinner, and then he heads back to his motel; no vows will be broken tonight. 

But Francesca, whose husband once told her that a certain pair of earrings “made her look like a hussy” and who, as we find out later, stopped having orgasms years ago, has other ideas. She nails a note for Robert Kincaid (whom Waller almost always describes using his full name) to the bridge he’ll be shooting at sunrise. When he comes for dinner that night — Francesca makes a stew, the most seductive of mid-summer meals — he stays for more than dessert. 

Finally, 108 pages into the 183-page paperback, they go to Bonetown, where they’ll stay for the rest of the week. Or, as Waller puts it, “Robert Kincaid gave up photography for the next few days.”

And that’s basically it! They profess their love for each other, and Robert Kincaid invites Francesca to join him on the road. She declines out of a sense of responsibility to her family, and the two never speak again except for one letter and a few photographs Kincaid sends her in the mail before the National Geographic story runs. She spends the next two decades privately pining for him but claims she never regretted the choice to stay with Richard and their small-town life. 

By the time Oprah got wind of it (a recommendation from longtime bestie Gayle), Bridges had been on the Best Sellers list for about nine months with more than 2 million copies sold. The book was already a commercial success, if not a critically acclaimed one; in a short review for The New York Times, Elis Lozoto functionally panned it, calling it “a bodice-heaving, swept-away-by-love romance, a soft-focus fantasy.” A few months later, a Times reporter investigating the phenomenon got the vice president and editor-in-chief of Book-of-the-Month Club to go on the record with the scorching take that Bridges had “successfully tapped into the rich market of middle-aged, world-weary people.” Eventually, the book was so popular that it became fodder for parody, snobbery, and everything in between, as documented in this gloriously titled piece, “The Grinches of Madison County.” 


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