A lot of us carry in the back of our mind the shameful memory of a passionate weekend with an attractive but unsuitable companion. For 12 million of us, that companion was The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller's torrid, tear-stained novel about a thwarted housewife, an itinerant photographer and the four-day shag that shook the world. Bridges spent three years on the New York Times best-seller list on its way to becoming the best-selling hard-cover novel of all time. Ten years later, just when we thought we had put it all behind us, Waller is back with a sequel, A Thousand Country Roads (John M. Hardy; 192 pages).
The road has been a rocky one for Waller, 58, who had his private life dragged into the spotlight in 1997 when he left his wife for a blond thirtysomething ranch hand. Even more worrying to loyal Waller fans, Warner Books, which made a mint on Bridges, rejected the sequel, which instead will be published next week by a small Texas press. That's like Paramount passing on Titanic II.
A Thousand Country Roads begins 16 years after the close encounter in Bridges. The two principals are spending their twilight years many miles apart: Robert Kincaid on an island in Puget Sound; Francesca Johnson, now a widow, dreaming away the long evenings on her Iowa farm. Bored with retirement and pushing 70, Kincaid sets off in his beloved pickup to see the fateful Roseman Bridge one last time. There's tension in the air, but not because we expect the two lovers to meet again--Waller made it clear in Bridges that they never do. The tension comes from two new characters: Wynn McMillan, a cello-playing old flame of Kincaid's (pre-Francesca), and Carlisle McMillan, their (gasp!) son, who is searching for his dad, who doesn't know he exists.
Don't worry: Waller has not burned his Bridges. His gift is what it is: he writes about tough men and tough women with tough rows to hoe, characters just human enough to believe in and just godlike enough to fantasize about. And credit where credit is due, it works. Waller calls it "a book of endings," and that's apt. Roads has none of the pounding passion of Bridges but twice the pathos--it's a book about aging, a reprise in a minor key. Or put another way, it's less about the bridges, and more about the water under them.
--By Lev Grossman