Every so often a book comes along that deeply touches the romantic imagination. Twenty-five years ago, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull did this.
Now, in North America at least, we have roughly the same phenomenon with Robert Waller’s book, The Bridges of Madison County (Warner Books, New York, 1992).
In the wake of this story, many a person, married and unmarried, will be restlessly searching for that one-in-a-million soulmate and daily scanning the horizon with burning eyes that ask:
“ls that her? ls that him? Might this finally be my soulmate, my destiny, the person with whom my true life can begin?”
Waller’s book is the true story of a love affair between Francesca Johnson, a farm wife from Madison County, Iowa, and Robert Kincaid, a free-lance photographer. In 1965, when he was 52 years old, Kincaid went to Madison County from Bellingham, Wash., to do some work for National Geographic magazine. His assignment was to take pictures of the covered bridges there.
Searching for one of those bridges, he stops by a farm house to ask for directions and his life and the life of Francesca, a married mother whose husband and two teenage children are gone for the week, change forever.
Instantly both sense that this meeting is not an accident but destiny. Both, too, instantly realize that life will never be the same again, that this meeting will leave a scar, of joy and pain, that will relativize all their joys and pains for the rest of their lives.
They spend just five days together, talking, drinking beer and brandy, smoking Camel cigarettes, dancing in the farmhouse kitchen, making love, sharing deeply their mutual loneliness, and taking pictures of the bridges of Madison County.
For them, however, those five days constitute a life-time, more than a life-time in fact. Both of them go to their deaths (Robert in 1982 and Francesca in 1989) believing that those five days were really their only real life and that in those five·days, they experienced something that, arrogant though this might sound, perhaps nobody has ever experienced as powerfully.
Waller’s book, based largely upon Francesca’s journals, found after her death, focuses mainly on those five days.
When Francesca’s husband and children return she is forced to make a choice—go with Robert or return to her life? Her whole being aches for Robert but her sense of duty wins out and she stays with her husband and children.
Except she doesn’t stay, really. From that day on, until she dies, even though she and Robert never see each other again and never, save for one small postcard, contact each other again, her heart and soul are with Robert and his are with her.
When, after his death, his will is opened, it contains a letter for Francesca within which he says: ‘I live with dust on my heart . . . There have been women before you, a few, but none after. I made no conscious pledge to celibacy, I’m just not interested.”
When he was leaving he had said to Francesca: “In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live.” For Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, that was true.
Perhaps it is not true for some of the rest of us, but the fact that this book has stirred such a restlessness within so many people suggests that a good number of persons believe that it could be true for them . . . if only they would meet that one special person!
What’s to be said about this? ls there some one-in-a-billion person out there, some soulmate, who, if we could only meet, would make us whole and make the world real in a way that nothing within our lives now can ever approximate?
There is something lodged inextricably inside the heart that wants to say “yes” to that. But one wonders: If Romeo and Juliet had lived, would the spell have broken? If Francesca Johnson had gone to live with Robert Kincaid, would this one-in-a-billion romance have eventually become a one-like-everyone-elses?
Neither the naive romantic nor the cynical analyst, to my mind, can answer that question correctly.
But irrespective of our own answer, whether Waller’s story deeply stirs our romantic imaginings or leaves us shaking our heads cynically at two people who felt they had invented the wheel, we must, I submit, deal with this longing for a soulmate more by filtering it through Augustine’s dictum, “you have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” than with restless eyes that assess every new person with the question: ”ls this finally her? ls this finally him?”