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The Unexamined Life Examined In 'Mrs. Bridge'

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."

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Patterson
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