IOWA IS A WELL-ORDERED PLACE. THE LAND IS RICH AND smells of churned butter and cow manure. The people are large and friendly; they eat two-pound steaks and don't count cholesterol. Iowans don't have affairs; they are too busy working and eating. The boundaries are all clearly marked and the land is too flat for them to keep anything secret. The thought of a great romance taking place in Iowa seems ludicrous: romance is about escape from reality and Iowa is as real as cow pie, as serious as a heart attack.
Yet Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County, a romance set in Iowa, is the most popular book of our time. Love-starved semiliterates clasp it to their heaving bosoms. Readers with no sense of humor can either cry themselves sick over it or throw up. The slight story is about Francesca Johnson, a middle-aged woman born in Italy, who came to a farm in Iowa as a war bride and has spent her comfortable, unexciting life tending her decent husband and raising her teenaged children. While her husband and kids are off at the state fair one weekend in 1965, Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer, drives up in a beat-up, old truck and asks her for directions to a nearby covered bridge. She shows him the way, invites him for dinner, dances with him, sleeps with him, and bathes with him.
Robert doesn't talk like anyone she has met before in either Italy or Iowa. He falls for her, explaining, "I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all of those years, I have been falling toward you."
She melts. "With her face buried in his neck ... she could smell rivers and woodsmoke, could hear steaming trains chuffing out of winter stations in long-ago nighttimes ..."
He invites her to go away with him: "Come travel with me, Francesca . . . We'll make love in the desert sand and drink brandy on balconies in Mombasa, watching dhows from Arabia run up their sails in the first wind of morning."
But when Francesca's husband comes home, she decides not to run off with Robert to watch the dhows from Arabia. Instead, she stays at home, spending the rest of her life maintaining a secret shrine in his honor. When Francesca dies, she leaves her mementos and her diaries
to her children with instructions to throw her ashes off the covered bridge to mix with those of Robert. Her middle-aged children read her story and are alternately horrified and entranced to discover that "between bake sales, our mother was "Anais Nin" (a witty line, thus clearly not in the book).
Why is the story of Francesca and Robert's doomed love so phenomenally popular? Perhaps because it seems painless. It did not end tragically, it did not seem to hurt anyone, and it did not disturb her mundane life of everyday details or his life of restless adventure. Yet it still had the power to give these secret romantics their emotional raison d'etre. Francesca's secret love, and the sacrifice of it, kept her in the comfort of her marriage while emotionally she floated above the routine of it all. It is the ideal affair: a lifetime of passionate memories, minimal danger and little or no guilt.
The crazily intoxicating obsession of romance is dangerous. Romantics seem willing to go to any lengths to avoid the boredom of a normal life. They are even willing to die for it. The ultimate romance is the liebestod, where lovers die together at the point of orgasm, like Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet. (Slightly less s anguine lovers prefer to just sacrifice mates and children for it.)
For romance to protect lovers from the domestic mundanity of marriage, in which the picturesque differences that create the magical magnetism between lovers might in time settle into a set of irritating responsibilities, it must be thwarted somehow. Romance is akin to suicide, and many keep their love alive by self-destructing for it. …