Robert James Waller, whose romantic novel The Bridges of Madison County sold more than 12 million copies and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, has died in Texas. He was 77, his agency confirmed.
Scott Cawelti, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, told the Associated Press that Weller died early Friday at his home in Fredericksburg. He had been fighting multiple myeloma, a form of cancer.
Critics didn’t even pretend to treat the 171-page story of a four-day affair between a hunky roving photographer and an Italiantely beautiful lonely housewife as a serious work of art. They greeted the 1992 novel with long blades that hadn’t been brandished since the publication of Erich Segal’s 1970 Love Story — another critically reviled tear-jerker that left its author crying all the way to the bank and went on to become a blockbuster film. Eastwood also directed Bridges, which was adapted by Richard LaGravenese and earned Streep an Oscar Best Actress nomination.
Bridges was also turned into a 2014 Broadway musical, though it was not a success.
Film critic Caryn James nailed the appeal of both the book and film: “Under this romantic gloss lurks the book’s buried message, and the key to its immense popularity,” she wrote in The New York Times. “The Bridges of Madison County is really about the nobility of living an ordinary life. It is about renouncing grand passion in favor of being a wife and mother, as Francesca does. The story of Francesca and Robert would have been a lot less popular if they had run off together or if she had thrown herself under a train. The book’s message is reassuring to readers who have renounced their own great passions, and even more reassuring to those who have never found any. It is a message the new film version, which opened on Friday, is smart enough to grasp and run with.”
The $24 million Warner Bros film grossed $71 million in the U.S. and $182 million worldwide. The book and film made a millionaire of the previously unknown writer and turned the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, into an unlikely tourist destination, with the accompanying trade in T-shirts, postcards and baubles, while turning the area’s town halls into impromptu-wedding chapels that would be the envy of Las Vegas.
With his newfound success, Waller relocated from Iowa to an isolated ranch in Alpine, Texas. He divorced his wife of 36 years, with whom he had a daughter, Rachel Waller, and is survived by his wife Linda Bow, who worked on the ranches as a landscaper.
The novel’s photographer-hero offers up perhaps the best account of Waller’s own fate. “That’s the problem in earning a living through an art form,” Robert Kincaid says ruefully, sort of. “You’re always dealing with markets, and markets – mass markets –are designed to suit average tastes.”