Explore a deep dive into The Bridges of Madison County controversy. Robert James Waller’s best-selling romance novel is the quintessential example of a “love it or hate it” book. This article explores why.
The Bridges of Madison County controversy fascinates me.
The book is a simple, quite brief fictional story about a four-day love affair between Francesca, a desperate, middle-aged, stay-at-home mother in rural Iowa, and Robert, a rugged, globe-trotting National Geographic photographer with intellectual depth.
To say that the story is a popular small-town romance novel, or even a classic love story for the ages, is a massive understatement. It’s actually one of the best-selling novels of all time, having sold over 60 million copies since its 1992 release, which places it squarely behind the Harry Potter books and The Catcher in the Rye (ever heard of them?!) in the statistics.
The Bridges of Madison County was also adapted into a popular 1995 movie in which Clint Eastwood produced, directed, and starred. Co-star Meryl Streep went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role.
And, there’s now even a musical stage version of this forbidden love story.
In fact, The Bridges of Madison County was SO popular that, in 1993, Oprah Winfrey broadcast her talk show in front of a red, covered Iowan bridge with hundreds of women cheering nearby, as she lamented that she and best friend Gayle had stayed up all night crying after finishing this “book of the year.”
In researching this article, I even read a scientific study of readers’ widespread responses to the book, in which it was described as something discussed at the water cooler as easily and frequently as the weather or politics.
I was a child at the time The Bridges of Madison County was published, so it was beyond my years, but I can still recall seeing this far-reaching publicity and wondering what could possibly be so great about a book and a movie about an old bridge?!
Perhaps that question is what lead me here, in more ways than one.
In case you’re wondering, in Season 6, Episode 13 (“Friday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), Lorelai says to Rory:
You and your grandparents are at a huge crossroads, a precipice, if you will. They are The Bridges of Madison County, and you are Meryl Streep.
I thought it was just fine — I was neither dramatically captivated by the love story, nor did I dislike it.
But, when I went onto GoodReads to read the reviews of other readers, as I often do in order to think about a book more deeply, I couldn’t believe my eyes: most reviewers did NOT share my modest sentiments. They either loved The Bridges of Madison County or they hated it.
Actually, they either thought it was the greatest love story of all time or that it should be used as fuel to burn garbage (their words, not mine). To this day, I have never seen opinions so polarized in rating any one book.
So, I thought The Bridges of Madison County controversy was a good basis to explore the question of why some people love a book and others hate it.
Below, I will briefly summarize The Bridges of Madison County, then share some of the reasons people loved or hated this book. As the rare reader who felt somewhere in the middle about it, I come in peace, and I take no sides. This is merely an exploration of a popular reading phenomenon that has intrigued me for years now, about this book in particular.
To conclude, I will summarize what The Bridges of Madison County controversy says about “love it or hate it” books generally, and what we can take from it.
NOTE: There are spoilers below.
The Bridges of Madison County Summary
The Bridges of Madison County is set up as being told in the present day as a true story about the past. Two adult siblings ask the author to investigate and write about their deceased mother’s love affair. This is the story presented:
Set in rural Madison County, Iowa, in 1965, Francesca Johnson is an Italian-American, married, stay-at-home mother of two children. She has lost her sense of self and purpose in these roles and, particularly, in her loveless marriage.
When her family leaves her home alone while they attend the State Fair for four days, she has a chance meeting with Robert Kincaid, an international photographer for National Geographic capturing the bridges in Madison County. Francesca directs him to the bridge he is looking for, and they spend the day exploring it and talking about life.
Thereafter, they spend more time together and fall madly and deeply in love. It’s a passionate, but complicated, love affair, as Francesca is torn between her duty to her family and the connection she feels to Robert on all levels – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Meanwhile, Robert feels the same connection, but he is a loner and a drifter, once divorced already.
When Robert’s four days in Madison County come to an end, he asks Francesca to leave with him and travel the world.
As the novel reaches its climax and the reader wonders, “Will she or won’t she?”, Francesca ultimately decides to stay In Iowa with her family. However, this encounter has left both Francesca and Robert forever changed.
Months later, Robert sends Francesca a copy of his article about the bridges and, after Francesca’s husband dies, she tries to reach Robert but is unable to do so.
In 1982, Francesca receives a letter from Robert’s estate, informing her that he has died and his ashes are scattered at the bridge. She is also provided with mementos left to her by Robert.
Francesca goes on to write journals about the time they spent together.
The Bridges of Madison County Ending
After Francesca herself dies decades later, she leaves behind her journals, Robert’s mementos, and a letter telling her children of her love for Robert and her desire for his ashes to be spread at the bridge with his ashes.
Thereafter, the narrator locates a musician friend of Robert’s, who says that Robert had told him of their love affair, and he composed a musical piece for Robert about it, which Robert loved to listen to in the months prior to his death.
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The Bridges of Madison County Controversy
The Bridges of Madison County controversy is about the polarizing opinions of readers who either loved or hated it. Generally speaking, the battles are ones of morality, as well as fantasy versus reality in love. Here’s what people have to say about it:
Why Some Readers Loved The Bridges of Madison County
Some readers loved The Bridges of Madison County for portraying a story of “true love.”
This romantic, fantastical, “one and only” type of love is presented (most often to females) as something to desire and seek, as early as our childhood years by way of fairy tales.
Women, especially, yearn for romantic, transcendent love (just look at the popularity of said fairy tales and romance novels), and Waller presents just that in The Bridges of Madison County.
And, “forbidden love” is a trope that has firmly captured hearts and minds since Shakespeare’s time (Romeo and Juliet). It can be said that, if you really want to keep an audience captivated, then create friction that keeps the romantic leads. Their togetherness brings closure and allows the reader to move on mentally, whereas an external force causing the protagonists’ separation makes the reader yearn for more.
Some readers loved The Bridges of Madison County for exploring the grey areas that comprise real life.
Francesca and Robert are presented as “real people” who are flawed, which some readers prefer.
Francesca, in particular, exhibits the repressed, hopeless, lost feelings that many real married mothers feel, making her relatable. In many ways, it was the perfect book for Oprah’s audience to feel seen.
Many women also know that, deep down, they would probably make the same decision as Francesca, especially for the sake of their children. And, the fact that Francesca’s choice was “the right thing to do” has helped some readers “get over” the infidelity at the core of the story.
Still, others found it to be valuable as a cautionary tale of the unhappiness that can spring from marrying too soon.
The story of Francesca and Robert also goes beyond their love and can make the reader think about repression and regrets in their own life. It’s always interesting to think, “What if?” especially in moments of darkness. This book can do that for the reader.
From a psychological standpoint, this memory of transcendent love that Francesca carried with her may even be said to have improved her marriage and mothering, since she was forever changed by it.
Some readers loved The Bridges of Madison County because it offered them hope.
Targeted at unhappy middle-aged women, The Bridges of Madison County also offered many readers hope for a second chance at true love, particularly later in life.
She wrote that longing is a muse that often shows up for women in love as “I’m waiting for you.” She goes on to discuss the fact that the idealized courtship phase of love, like that presented in The Bridges of Madison County, is what people often hope for, as they believe that is when their yearning is complete and they have reached the goal line.
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Why Some Readers Hated The Bridges of Madison County
Some readers hated the characters and their actions.
Infidelity is always a sore spot in storytelling, and many readers thought Francesca and Robert were selfish, narcissistic characters who lacked family values. Particularly, Francesca didn’t garner favor as a cheating wife who betrayed her husband and considered abandoning her children, then lacked guilt for doing so.
Francesca’s post-mortem letter to her children can also come across as tone-deaf to their own needs in grieving her death, as well as how this news may forever change them — not necessarily for the better.
Some readers hated Waller’s perspective.
Waller was a middle-aged man when he wrote The Bridges of Madison County, targeted at an audience of middle-aged wives and mothers, and he wasn’t necessarily relatable in doing so.
Many readers saw his portrayal of Francesca as submissive and undeveloped beyond her roles as a wife and mother. Meanwhile, his portrayal of Robert as “the last great cowboy” can be said to be an old-fashioned portrayal of masculinity.
Likewise, they hate that Francesca was only able to find happiness in life through a man.
Some readers didn’t like the fantastical nature of “true love” that was presented.
Realists believe that true love is everything that happens after the idealized phase of courtship and, thus, they argue that Francesca and Robert were experiencing fleeting infatuation rather than lasting love.
Susan Cain, mentioned above, goes on to acknowledge this in her book, Bittersweet, in discussing The Bridges of Madison County: “over the course of love, real life will intervene.” Realistically, it’s unlikely that leaving Iowa with Robert would have brought Francesca long-term happiness, as she probably would have come to dislike his lifestyle, and she may have also long-standing issues with her children as a result.
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Now you know both sides of The Bridges of Madison County controversy, and why it’s so fascinating to take a close look at, even decades after its publication. As mentioned, I don’t really have a side here — I just really enjoy standing on the sidelines and watching people discuss this book!
But, I do note that The Bridges of Madison County has a few elements that tend to garner polarized reviews: unlikeable/flawed characters who sometimes make bad choices; and a fantastical version of love versus a practical one.
To conclude our discussion, I also note that in Bittersweet, Susan Cain concluded that The Bridges of Madison County has resonated for decades of time with tens of millions of readers because it’s about “the moments when you glimpse your Eden […] the transience of these sightings and why they mean more than anything else that might ever happen to you.”
And, these bittersweet moments can be the ones that resonate with us so deeply and for so long, for better or for worse.