Building bridges Sentimental novel keeps novice writer on top

August 06, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Edition

Sometime soon -- probably this month, his publisher says -- the 3 millionth copy of Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" will be printed. On Sunday, it will have been on the best-seller list of The New York Times Book Review for exactly one year. This slim novel of bittersweet love in rural Iowa has been the Times' No. 1 fiction seller for 24 of those weeks, and remains atop the list despite competition from such heavyweights as John Grisham, Scott Turow and John le Carre.

"The Bridges" is an unabashedly sentimental novel written by a former Iowa academic who calls himself "one of the last cowboys" -- much like Robert Kincaid, the novel's Yeats-spouting loner who feels adrift in a world of crassness and conformity. Published by Warner Books in April 1992 with a modest first printing of 29,000, "The Bridges of Madison County" reached No. 1 on the fiction list in January 1993, and it shows no signs of slipping.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey liked the book so much that in May she did an entire show from Madison County, Iowa (the book's title refers to the covered bridges there, a popular tourist attraction). It's become a staple of reading groups, and has sparked any number of lively discussions between readers who were entranced by the novel's romantic plot and by those who felt it was overdone schmaltz.

For instance, there's a scene between Kincaid, who is in Madison County to photograph the bridges for National Geographic, and Francesca Johnson, the lonely farmer's wife with whom he has begun a passionate, four-day affair. As they discuss what to do as her husband's return becomes imminent, Kincaid begs Francesca to run off with him: "We'll make love in desert sand and drink brandy on balconies in Mombasa, watching dhows from Arabia run up their sails in the first wind of morning. I'll show you lion country and an old French city on the Bay of Bengal where there's a wonderful rooftop restaurant, and trains that climb through mountain passes and little inns run by Basques high in the Pyrenees. . . ."

Something of a phenomenon

Whether this kind of prose enchants or repels you, this 171-page book of debatable literary value has become a publishing and cultural phenomenon of the "Love Story" ilk.

"It's just a beautiful little book, and it's very, very moving -- unusual in this day of so much cynicism," says Dee Peeler, head buyer for the book department at Greetings & Readings in

Towson. "In 15 years at this store, I've never seen a book quite like it. There have been a lot of best-selling books that have done extremely well, but this is one of a kind."

"Bridges" is one of a kind in another, very American way: It may dTC be one of the most heavily and diversely marketed books yet.

If you haven't read the Francesca/Robert saga, there's always the record album. The recently released "The Ballads of Madison County" will be part of an ambitious cross-marketing effort involving Atlantic Records and Warner Books, its corporate brother in the giant Time Warner conglomerate. Mr. Waller, who has played banjo and guitar in Midwest bars and Holiday Inns over the years, signed a five-album contract with Atlantic.

And this being the '90s, there's a video, of course. "The Madison County Waltz," a ballad in which Mr. Waller and his wife, Georgia Ann, re-enact the plot line of the book along to his mournful music, debuted Wednesday on the VH-1 cable music channel.

The movie? Steven Spielberg's production company bought the rights, and (at this moment) Sydney Pollack will direct and

Robert Redford will play Kincaid. Preproduction work is to begin this fall in Iowa, according to Mr. Waller's agent, Aaron Priest. Entertainment Weekly reports several top actresses (including Kathleen Turner, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon) are rumored to be vying for the role of Francesca.

And a calendar for 1995

Filming may not begin till 1994, with the movie perhaps coming out just in time to whet the appetite for a 1995 calendar featuring photographs of the now-famous bridges (Iowa tourism officials says inquiries about them have tripled since the book came out). Taking the pictures is the author himself, an amateur photographer. Obviously, Mr. Waller is one busy man: A publicist said he was unavailable for a telephone interview because he's on a concert tour, billed as "An Evening With Robert James Waller."

Stay on the horse

If this seems a bit too much fuss over a slender novel that was written by a former college dean in two weeks in July 1990, consider the words of the author himself. Speaking at the American Booksellers Association convention in Miami Beach in May, Mr. Waller told a collection of book-industry types about the calendar and album, then said good-naturedly, "When the horse is running, you ride it until it falls down."

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