Bridge of Sighs

by Richard Russo | Audiobooks | This book has not been rated.
ISBN: 1400030900 Global Overview for this book
Registered by wingMartschellawing of Hechingen, Baden-Württemberg Germany on 1/22/2015
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Journal Entry 1 by wingMartschellawing from Hechingen, Baden-Württemberg Germany on Thursday, January 22, 2015
Richard Russo sets “Bridge of Sighs” in a fictitious upstate New York town called Thomaston. It is yet another haven for this author’s favorite shirkers, burghers, complainers and human tumbleweeds: the kind of population that turned Mr. Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls” into an improbably neighborly and nonchalant version of the great American novel.

Thomaston resembles Empire Falls in that its geographical, social and economic lines are very precise. These two places also share echoes of Gloversville, N.Y., the factory town where Mr. Russo grew up. Located on the rainbow-trout-striped banks of a polluted river, with a local tannery to thank for this industrial legacy, Thomaston is divided into provinces. The West End is the gritty part of town. The East End is for cautious, upwardly mobile types. The Borough is where the Tannery’s owner lives. It is also where the narrator of “Bridge of Sighs,” Lou C. Lynch, unfortunately nicknamed Lucy, has managed to plant himself after 60 years of cautious small-town living.

But how big is Thomaston in the literary sense rather than the demographic one? That question hovers over this long, expansive book, Mr. Russo’s first novel since “Empire Falls.” The narrator’s self-effacing tone does not lend itself to grand notions. Neither does the book’s emphasis on two particular phases of life rather than on the full panorama. “Don’t confuse growing up with changing,” warns Tessa Lynch, Lucy’s acerbic mother, who does her best to keep him firmly planted in childhood, even when he is 60 years old.

“Bridge of Sighs” begins when its three principals are all that age. Two of them, Lucy and the former Sarah Berg, have been married for 40 years. They are about to embark on a trip to Venice, a plan fraught with anxiety, because it may or may not reunite them with an old friend who meant too much to both of them. Sarah was halfway in love with Bobby Marconi, the third main character, when all three were high school seniors in Thomaston. In his own way, which has far more to do with childhood yearning for strength and friendship than with stifled sexuality, Lucy was in love with him, too.

Having teased its readers with the prospect of a Venice reunion, “Bridge of Sighs” then heads for what will be its primary realm: the formative years full of parent-child conflict and schoolyard drama. Mr. Russo uses the slightly cumbersome device of having Lucy write about this in a memoir. Lucy’s version of events is subsumed into the book’s larger narrative, which switches vantage points frequently and has the quirky, anecdotal spark that is this author’s hallmark. It is not possible to describe what Mr. Russo does without letting the word “quirky” creep in.

That’s because so much of “Bridge of Sighs” concerns itself with oddball details, from petty rivalries between the Lynch and Marconi families to the Lynch in-house dispute about how to run a convenience store. (Tessa’s plan involves nonstop disparaging wisecracks and endless amounts of homemade macaroni salad.) But in the midst of these small matters, the big contours of “Bridge of Sighs” emerge. They are richly evocative and beautifully wrought, delivered with deceptive ease. Another of Mr. Russo’s hallmarks is that wonderfully unfashionable gift for effortless storytelling on a sweeping, multigenerational scale.

Lucy emerges as the complex product of his diametrically different parents, his wisecracking Uncle Declan, his childhood years of stunted aspirations and an enduringly traumatic incident at a Thomaston railroad trestle. Meanwhile, Bobby bursts out of such a bitter family life that he reinvents himself as a different person. He has turned himself into Robert Noonan, a famous expatriate American artist living in Venice, when the book catches up with him in adulthood.

The Lynch family becomes this novel’s dependable linchpin, but Sarah’s actions and intuitions are harder to predict. She must accommodate herself to both a wanton, runaway mother and a father who makes a wildly eccentric high school teacher. He is sane, in the opinion of one of his students, only in comparison with Melville’s Captain Ahab, whom he eagerly impersonates one day, whalebone prosthesis and all.

In class, Sarah’s father trumpets the value of big ideas and larger-than-life characters. The small man who runs a grocery is beneath his consideration — and, as a work of literature, maybe “Bridge of Sighs” would be, too. It is a novel of great warmth, charm and intimacy, but not one of earth-shattering revelations. And it does not attain the stature of “Empire Falls,” despite the books’ surface similarities. Partly, this is because Mr. Russo has covered this terrain before. And partly it is because “Bridge of Sighs,” like Lucy Lynch, is shaped by touchingly unglamorous honesty and self-doubt, modest qualities to be sure.

This book often wonders how irrevocably its characters were shaped in their youth. And it questions the degree to which they can ever change. In the end, despite a late, unlikely plot twist for Sarah, it presents a world full of patterns that jump from generation to generation. Mr. Russo juxtaposes youthful drama with the subtler, sadder understanding that comes later in life. In the process, he winds up maneuvering Thomaston not into the territory of epic fiction but into the realm of dreams.

Some of this book’s most memorable moments take the form of sharp, funny storytelling. Some emerge more amorphously through intuitive visions. And each of the main characters has a Bridge of Sighs lodged somewhere in his or her consciousness. Robert Noonan’s arrives, unbidden, on one of his canvases. Sarah’s also manifests itself through art. And Lucy’s exists in the state of semiconsciousness into which he has crept fearfully since that childhood disturbance. It tempts him to get out of Thomaston. Even more persuasively, Mr. Russo tempts his readers to come in.

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