Shamanlike, the slim, hard book appeared as if from nowhere, promising love-starved readers a passion they’d never felt before. By the time it left, like the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea, it had changed their lives forever.
Translation: “The Bridges of Madison County” by Robert James Waller is dropping off The New York Times best-seller list after a near-record 162 weeks.
The waning of “Bridges” mania was observed with wistful sighs by fans and sighs of relief by sophisticates who sneer at the book’s, shall we say, lack of literary finesse.
The novel about an Iowa farm wife’s affair with a roving National Geographic photographer has sold 10 million copies worldwide since April 1992, according to Warner Books.
“Bridges” turned an unknown writer into a multimillionaire and made Madison County, Iowa, an international tourist attraction. And that was before things really got hot with the June release of the “Bridges” movie, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson.
“It wasn’t just a best seller,” says Charles McGrath, the Times’ book-review editor. “It became a huge phenomenon.”
“Bridges” hit the Times’ top-20 list of hardcover fiction in August 1992 and has stayed there longer than any work of fiction since “The Robe,” a novel about Jesus’ crucifixion. The book lasted 178 weeks in the early 1950s.
“Bridges” falls from the Sept. 24 list, which reflects sales in bookstores nationwide during the week ending Sept. 9. (It has yet to fall from lists kept by The Wall Street Journal and Publisher’s Weekly.)
“Bridges” won’t be missed by critics who skewered it as florid and cliche-ridden.
“Mr. Waller depicts their mating dance in plodding detail, but he fails to develop them as believable characters,” Eils Lotozo wrote in the Times in 1993.
“Instead, we get a lot of quasimystical business about the shamanlike photographer who overwhelms the shy, bookish Francesca with ‘his sheer emotional and physical power.”’
The story worked powerful magic on Cyndy and Allen Campbell of Valparaiso, Ind. “It was romantic,” says Cyndy, 43, who read the book aloud to Allen, 52, during a road trip last summer. “It was touching.”
So touching that two months later, the couple traveled to Winterset, Iowa, to get married on a covered bridge described in the book.
At least 30 couples have wed on Madison County’s covered bridges in the past year.
Around Winterset, population 4,200, tourists arrive by the busloads, buying “Bridges” T-shirts, perfume and postcards. In July, more than 10,000 visitors signed in at the Chamber of Commerce office, where they could use restrooms marked “Roberts” and “Francescas.”
The message from Winterset: Write no epitaph for “The Bridges of Madison County.” One hundred bus tours will hit town next month, and the county’s 26th annual covered-bridge festival is coming up Oct. 14-15.
“I think we’re just going to blow the doors off this year,” Chamber of Commerce director Doug Hawley says. “I think it’s going to go bananas.”