Friday, May 17, 2013
Book Review: The Bridge of Years by May Sarton
Title: The Bridge of Years
Author: May Sarton
Publisher: WW Norton
Publication Date: April 18, 1946
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
This novel, first published in 1946, is one of May Sarton's earliest and, some critics think, one of her best. It takes place during the years between the world wars and explores the life of a Belgian family, the Duchesnes, and their mutual devotion which intensifies under the shadow of impending disaster.
Mélanie Duchesne, mother of three, is an active businesswoman, whose courage, energy, and optimism bind the family and its farm together. Paul, her husband, is a philosopher, detached, moody, continually embroiled in the spiritual conflicts of a crumbling Europe.
The last years before the second war are tense ones, a time for stock-taking, for a quickening of the pace of life. But it is Mélanie who encourages her family to proceed with their plans, to continue with their way of life. And it is Mélanie who decides their future as the Germans launch their invasion of Belgium.
I'll admit it--when I started looking for a book for this month's Around the World challenge, I wasn't super stoked. I was having a really hard time finding a good Belgium pick. I usually try to choose a monthly novel for this challenge that looks at least somewhat familiar to me, but nothing on the Belgium list jumped out. However, based on its description, I put The Bridge of Years on hold at the library and hoped for the best.
Final verdict: SO GLAD that I gave this one a chance! May Sarton's writing is absolutely beautiful, and I found myself completely enveloped in the Duchesnes' daily drama right from page one.
I will note right away that this is not a novel with an "action" plot. Despite being set in a very turbulent political period, this is very much a character-driven work. Sarton hones in on the relationships between each member of the Duchesne family, and spends a lot of time developing their joys, misgivings, and philosophies as the book progresses. When the novel begins, World War 1 has just ended--by the end, World War 2 has recently pushed into Belgium. What Sarton manages to do is create a concise illustration of the Duchesnes' ever-changing family dynamic, as the politics and worries of the wider world bear down upon them.
What is most striking about this novel is how each character brilliantly comes to life on the page. A period of twenty years goes by in the course of the book, and yet Sarton is able to convincingly portray the maturity and development of each widely-different person: everyone from Melanie, the vivacious and charitable family matriarch, to Pierre, a young family friend who often spends summers with the Duchesnes. Sarton eloquently delineates every character's inner conflicts, and to me, this is The Thing that makes this novel worth devouring. She writes, in just 342 pages, words that seem like they belong in a much longer epic novel:
"Life was not lived at the point of intensity...when he finished his first book, when Colette was conceived. Life might be conceived there, but it was maintained on another level, less pure, less violent, closer to earth, difficult, gradual, asking above all the ability to endure."
The last third of the novel did feel a little slower for me, as politics become a larger part of the Duchesnes' everyday lives. However, I felt such a bond with the characters by then that it really did not disrupt my reading experience. And the ending left me with a lot to think about, as the Duchesnes try to determine if their way of life can continue as war becomes their daily reality.
I feel like I can't do this one justice in one small review. So you'll just have to trust me. If you're looking for an introspective, fluidly-written, character-driven novel, The Bridge of Years is a wonderful choice. This one snuck up on me, and reminded me that the more well-known novels are not the only good ones out there!
What novels have taken you by surprise lately?