In a scene about halfway through Evan S. Connell's novel Mrs. Bridge, the title character tells some friends about the trip from which she has just returned, a European tour of great historic cities and their grand museums. But if any of that Continental splendor truly moved her, she doesn't say. Instead, she finally admits: "All the time we were abroad I kept wondering if that awful hole in the pavement just off Ward Parkway had been fixed."
When Connell died last month, I remembered that scene, that glimpse of the way we think of wherever we come from. And I recalled my introduction to Mrs. Bridge, the Kansas City–born writer's first novel — a book that I now teach my own students at an Eastern university. The teacher who assigned that book to me, 30 years ago, was in her 60s then. What had become of Mrs. Collins?
I found her in the telephone book. She's 91 now, retired and living a mile from my old high school.
"Oh, yes, Connell had a strange way of seeing people," she said when I called. "He wrote about their outsides, and you had to catch on to what was going on in their insides from their outsides, and I liked that."
I asked her what she thought about Mrs. Bridge herself, heroine of what some critics have called a feminist novel.
"Did she have a character of her own?" she said, and laughed. "She just did what her husband told her."
The book takes place near the Country Club Plaza, where its author grew up in the 1930s and where I lived in the 1970s, until I was 13 and my parents divorced. When Mrs. Collins handed Mrs. Bridge to me, it spoke to my developing sense of irony and to my retreating faith about a world I'd escaped — the fashionable neighborhood that Connell so convincingly captures. I'd met those people, those accomplished doctors and lawyers and engineers (like my father) with their Corinthian-columned porches and French mansard roofs and Italian villa porticoes. And I still haven't forgotten the boulevards, manicured and lined with terraces of fountains and sculptures (and, yes, the occasional pothole).
Connell was showing me how often, behind mansion doors, people move through empty lives, determined by rigid social codes. Reading Mrs. Bridge that first time, I began to ask a new question: How would I live my life?
Like Connell, I left Kansas City as a young man, right after I turned 23. And though I return often to see relatives, I revisit when I teach Mrs. Bridge to my college students.
After she asks about the status of Ward Parkway's pavement, Mrs. Bridge tells her friends that "no matter how far you go there's no place like home." (The line nods to L. Frank Baum, that Oz architect whose work is so identified with the other side of the state line.) Connell continues: "She could see they agreed with her, and surely what she had said was true, yet she was troubled and for a moment she was almost engulfed by a nameless panic."
He never tells us precisely what the "panic" is, but he doesn't have to. By that point in the book, the Bridge children have grown up and left home. Material needs have been met, and there's nothing left to do.
Mrs. Collins told me that, after she retired, she moved to China and taught English there. I told her that I was writing my own first novel, and that I make my students read Mrs. Bridge. I said she had inspired me. Her reply was humble: "It was not my teaching. The books inspired you."
"What are you reading these days?" I asked.
She named True Grit, by Charles Portis, and she told me who had assigned it to her: "My son tells me to forget the movie, that the book is better."
Michael Carolan teaches literature and writing at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and can be heard on New England Public Radio.