By Bill Konigsberg
Aaron and Tillie have never met, but they have a lot in common. Both attend private Manhattan high schools. Both are performers. Both have one supportive and one checked-out parent. And both are preparing to jump from the George Washington Bridge.
Here’s where the plot of Bill Konigsberg’s “The Bridge” diverges into four possible timelines. In Chapter 1A, Tillie jumps and Aaron doesn’t. Shaken by what he has witnessed, Aaron goes home to his father, a banker-turned-social worker who readily shares feelings with his son. White and half Jewish, Aaron fantasizes about having a boyfriend and becoming a beloved singer-songwriter, and was crushed when no one responded to his latest video online. After a catatonic episode in school the next day, he starts to take medication and the clouds begin to lift, until he swings into mania.
In Chapter 1B, Tillie watches Aaron jump and leaves the bridge traumatized but safe. Adopted as a baby from Korea, Tillie wonders if she really fits in with her white family. Two weeks earlier, she performed a monologue at the school talent show about losing her virginity and feeling used by her ex-boyfriend, Amir. Her father was humiliated by her public vulnerability and her former best friend Molly made a parody video. Through Tillie’s eyes, we see the achingly real devolution of her relationships with Molly and her father.
The next chapters detail the empty spaces left if both teens jump. The lovers who go unmet. The book that goes unwritten. Their families’ unending grief. This section feels gimmicky — holograms in the future seem out of sync with the realism of the rest of the book — but it’s necessary to show that the world is not better off without Tillie and Aaron. Still, there is darkness here: By the end of this sequence, readers are left with the impression that everyone, eventually, is forgotten.
In the final chapters, Tillie and Aaron climb down from the bridge together, though their lives aren’t immediately saved. Konigsberg’s depiction of depression is nuanced and authentic. He doesn’t shy away from the pain of mental illness. While there is hope, there are no easy fixes.
The supporting characters have their own identity crises. Amir is Iranian and terrified to come out as gay. Molly doesn’t want her popular friends to know she’s secretly an obsessed fantasy-novel cosplayer — a tired trope that feels vapid in comparison with Tillie’s anguish.
Few young adult novels highlight adult perspectives, but the parents here are fully realized people. The scenes of their grief are particularly wrenching, all the more so because of the unique closeness of Aaron and his dad and Tillie and her mom. They struggle with guilt, even while their peers insist the deaths are not their fault.
In an author’s note, Konigsberg describes being admonished a few years back for speaking about suicide to young people. It remains his belief that we must talk about it more, not less, to prevent it.
Inspired by his own suicide attempt at age 27 and his “gratitude” that he got “a second chance at life,” Konigsberg’s novel, at its heart, is about finding a way through the worst moments, with treatment and support systems. The plot itself could be seen as a model for readers who are struggling: Characters witness suicide, then decide to live.
Aaron and Tillie wonder about the escape, but also about the pain and the possible nothingness afterward. “The Bridge” shows the positive reality of their material existence, and of their rich connections to those around them, even to people they don’t know — even perhaps to the readers of this book, which wouldn’t be in their hands if Konigsberg hadn’t lived.