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Imitation the Highest Form of Flattery? : Books: The popularity of 'Bridges of Madison County' is spawning similar stories of passionate love--but these poke fun at the bestseller's breathless prose.


W here great passion leaves off and mawkishness begins, I'm not sure. But our tendency to scoff at the possibility of the former and to label genuine and profound feelings as maudlin makes it difficult to enter the realm of gentleness required to understand the story of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid.

Perhaps Robert James Waller saw the future when he wrote of "our tendency to scoff" in the preface to his slim romance novel turned publishing phenomenon, "The Bridges of Madison County."

Waller fans had better circle the wagons around the realm of gentleness. The Grinches of Madison County are on the way and scoffing is way up.

Some readers--quite a lot of readers--love the book. Written in two weeks by Waller, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, "Bridges" was released with little fanfare by Warner Books in 1992 with a first printing of only 29,000 copies. Then, apparently due to reader and independent bookstore word of mouth, the book took off. More than a year after publication, it's sold 3.7 million copies, gone into 44 printings and still stands in the No. 1 or 2 spot on bestseller lists across the country.

But, like "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," "Indecent Proposal" and Michael Bolton, "Madison County" is beloved by many, loathed by others and just can't get any critical respect.

The first shots in the anti-"Bridges" fusillade were fired in "Doonesbury." In a week of strips in mid-August titled "The Washed-Out Bridges of Madison County," Garry Trudeau retold the story with the protagonists up to their chiseled chests and supple breasts in flood water.

(Waller's book is the tale of a four-day romance between the itinerant, vegetarian, guitar-playing photographer Robert Kincaid and lovelorn farm wife Francesca Johnson. When he comes to Iowa to shoot covered bridges for National Geographic, the two have a torrid affair they remember for the rest of their days.)

Fast on Trudeau's heels, Kevin Cowherd of the Baltimore Sun wrote a column titled, "The Ridges of Baltimore County," featuring Walt Peterson, the dashing owner of a pest-control service who is "at once intense and vulnerable."

"There's definitely a backlash," says Peter Borland, the editor of "The Ditches of Edison County," an upcoming satirical book by "Ronald Richard Roberts" to be published in November by Plume. "I don't want to say anything too horrible about 'Madison County,' " adds Borland tactfully. "But in every household where someone responded to it, there's someone else who, well, didn't like it so much."

Why such a production over a little seduction?

"It's 'Love Story' for the '90s," says Lois Zweben, owner of Paperback Trader, a used-book store in Santa Monica where hardback copies of "Madison County" are sold as soon as they come in. "Is it bad? No. Is it silly? Yes."

What seems to raise the hackles of "Madison" detractors is Waller's prose style, particularly the dialogue. Kincaid (who is described as "the leopard who came riding in on the tail of a comet") is prone to telling Johnson things like, "I think we're both inside of another being we have created called 'us.' "

"I started reading my sister-in-law's copy while on vacation at the Jersey shore--in between watching medical waste washing up at the beach," says Cowherd. "It was terribly maudlin. The premise was neat, but the dialogue is something from another world."

In one "Madison" reverie, for instance, the photographer/philosopher attempts to coax Johnson into joining him on the road by telling her, "I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea."

She demurs: "To do that would be to kill the wild, magnificent animal that is you."

"My wife loved it," says Billy Frolick, a.k.a. Ronald Richard Roberts, a Los Angeles entertainment writer. "When she gave it to me, she warned, 'Don't ruin this book for me,' but, of course, I did. For the record, though, I don't dislike the book. It's just that I grew up reading Mad magazine--and it's finally paying off."

Frolick's "The Ditches of Edison County" opens: "Pancetta was not unlike her kitchen table: sturdy, yet fragile, delicate, wholesome, strong, pert, bouncy and sensual. The table's wood grain sang out memories of days gone by. Metaphorically, of course--because in Pancetta's world, especially, there were no singing tables. Except for that fateful week, when even furniture could warble happy melodies."

"That's the ultimate form of flattery," says Warner Books representative Diane Ekeblad, who has spent the last year and a half promoting Waller's book. "Four million people can't be wrong. I don't think it needs to be turned into a critique of the human condition. Nobody ever said it was great literature."

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