Men from Mars, Women from Madison County

June 19, 1995|By TIM BAKER

OK. I read the book. Now I've seen the movie. And I'm totally disillusioned with women. How could this story enthrall so many of you?

Not just women addicted to pulp fiction and the day-time soaps. But intelligent women. Happily married women. Women who read literature and enjoy good conversation. The story sweeps them away.

''I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.'' Really!

Lines like that weren't the only reason to despise ''The Bridges of Madison County.'' Ultimately, what was unforgiveable about the book was the way it wallowed in the hero's illusions about himself.

Robert Kincaid, the National Geographic photographer who came to Iowa to take pictures of the covered bridges, saw himself as a mystic wanderer, a poetic soul -- ''some star creature who has drifted in on the tail of a comet.'' But his biggest illusion was that he was searching for a real relationship with a woman.

Did you all really believe that?

Actually, he spent his whole life avoiding real relationships. His history demonstrated that he had no capacity for intimacy or commitment. He didn't even have a dog.

He never had a meaningful relationship with anyone. Not before he came to Madison County. Not after he left. And he certainly didn't have one during the four bodice-heaving days he and Francesca Johnson spent together in this story.

His illusions about himself -- and hers about him -- could have shaped an enriching drama. Imagine the different possibilities. Illusions lead to realization and then redemption. Or they lead to disillusionment and tragedy. They could even lead to awareness, intimacy and real relationship.

But not in this story. Here illusions are reality, and so they lead only to fantasy. Is that what you really want? Fantasy?

The movie retains the book's central fantasy: Robert and Francesca find True Love together.

''There are people who wait their whole lives for this,'' Robert tells her, ''and others who don't think it exists.''

It doesn't exist! Not in this story. Here it's all blue smoke and mirrors. Re-read their conversations. Listen carefully to the things he says to her in the movie.

''To ancient evenings and distant music.''

If lines like that sweep you women away, then why have you spent the last 20 years telling us you wanted men who could be intimate, who could share their feelings, who could relate honestly and openly?

The truth is that this story isn't about relationships at all. What grips women is not the prospect of any real connection with this particular man or with any man. So Robert Kincaid's shallowness actually enhances his appeal. No real human qualities get in the way. He's simply a form. A male archetype.

The Prince.

What grabs women is not the hero at all! It's Francesca. Her life! That's what gets them.

She's Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty.

Women resonate to this fairy tale of a sleeping princess awakened from an empty life by a handsome stranger. He offers to carry her away to a magic kingdom of romance and sexual fulfilment. But family commitment and marital loyalty make it all impossible.

Impossibility is an essential part of the fantasy. Otherwise she would have to confront the reality of actually living with him.

So she says no. He leaves. Then she can happily spend the rest of her lonely life yearning for her lost love.

Listen, Ladies. Is this what you really want?

Because if you do, we men will have to switch course. Instead of getting in touch with our feelings and doing work on relating, we can wander around the house, like Robert Kincaid, saying profound things.

''The old dreams were good dreams; they didn't work out, but I'm glad I had them. I don't know what that means. I just thought I'd use it some day.''

But if you'd like something admittedly less poetic, less spiritual, less enchanting, then perhaps you and your husband could leave the kids at home one night and go see this movie together. Then afterward you could have dinner somewhere and talk about it. Just the two of you.

You could tell him why you're sad and lonely sometimes. He could listen. Ask questions. Try to understand. And when you're finished, he could tell you what makes him sad and lonely sometimes too. Then you two could take a walk. Hold hands.

Look, I know it wouldn't be four days with a dreamboat like Robert Kincaid. So it wouldn't be the perfect fantasy. But you might find it isn't bad -- that it's good enough. It might even be better.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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