BOOK REVIEW / Cowbore of yesteryear: 'The Bridges of Madison County' - Robert James Waller: Mandarin, 3.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS American novel was first published here in 1992, its title changed to Love in Black and White. In America, under its original title, it was a sensation: it spent 50 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list with sales of more than two million copies, and it caused readers to flock to the Iowan covered bridges to which it alludes. Hence its re-publication here now, in the original package.

The story, which poses as the truth with a how- I-came-across-these-documents introduction, is this: rugged 52-year-old photographer/poet and free spirit Robert Kincaid has a four-day love affair with Francesca Johnson, an unfulfilled Iowan farmer's wife whom he meets by chance; though they never see each other again, this passion obsesses both of them for the rest of their lives. Kincaid is a combination of old-fashioned machismo and New Man soulfulness - in him frontier legends meet Iron John; a prevalent myth of muscular, self-sufficient manliness combined with fashionable cod psychology.

In the middle of sex, Kincaid whispers to the awed Francesca: 'I am the highway and the peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.' He describes himself as 'one of the last cowboys', in a pseudy exposition of ideas that convince Francesca - and has also persuaded several previous lovers - that he has 'an intelligence that (is) brilliant in a raw, primitive, almost mystical fashion', but which convinces any sensible reader that he is an overblown bore. He has, we learn, tight chest muscles, a 'small rear', a belly 'as flat as a knife blade' and the animal grace of a leopard. He's cute, too. We are told five times that he calls his pick-up truck Harry.

Meanwhile, Italian-born Francesca, though 45, has breasts that are 'nice and firm'. A former schoolteacher, she should know better than to fall for Kincaid's hogwash. We are constantly assured of the power of the love these two have for each other, but from a different cultural perspective it is hard to believe in, or to like, either of them.

This is a midwestern Mills & Boon with ideas above its station and a movie adaptation in mind. Kincaid, in a rare moment of insight, says: 'That's the problem in earning a living through an art form. You're always dealing with markets, and markets - mass markets - are designed to suit average tastes.' You said it, Mr Waller.

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