Story problem: You have two middle-aged strangers. The odds against their meeting are a million to one. The temperature in the middle of Iowa in the middle of August is approximately 95 degrees. Under these conditions it takes roughly 24 hours for the duo to shed doubts, inhibitions, and clothing. The erotic and spiritual charge that they generate is equivalent to 10,000 volts, and the time given to express it is four days and three nights. Divide them by fate, and add the torches they carry ever after. How many gallons of schmaltz do you end up with?
The answer, oddly enough, is almost none. Robert James Waller's tact and sure sense of detail save The Bridges of Madison County told as though it were a true story from sogginess. What you end up with is a short, poignant story, moving precisely because it has the ragged edges of reality. It seems likely to melt all but the most determined cynics. Even those of us who think that romantic love contains more than the usual share of human illusion are willingly floored by it now and then, in literature as in life.
On a hot summer day in 1965, a lean, free-spirited photographer named Robert Kincaid drives into Madison County, Iowa. He has been commissioned to photograph the covered bridges in the vicinity. Unable to locate them, he pulls into a farm to ask directions. The woman he finds there is alone, her husband and teenage children off at a state fair for the week. She is Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride, 45 years old. She guides him to a nearby bridge, and afterward invites him for iced tea and then supper. He talks of poetry, art, and their mass-marketing enemies: ''People in Madison County didn't talk this way, about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs.'' The dreamy Neapolitan girl in the dutiful, bored farm wife awakens. She invites him back for supper the next night, and with the help of a little brandy they are soon on their way to the mystical intimations of destiny and ecstatic oneness that lovers have been known to reach.
The prose sometimes overheats, but the purple passages go with the archaic air of the story, which is based on an account written by Francesca and discovered after her death. What makes it archaic is the absolute separation of the lovers and the purity of their unceasing devotion. An unlikely enough story a quarter-century ago, and more unlikely every minute. Today it would probably end in phoned or faxed pleadings, or in cohabitation, or in court. But then improbability is what romantic love is all about. B+