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|Bridge of Sighs|
by Richard Russo - 31 May 2008
| Enjoyable, Overly Sentimental, November 24, 2007
By Wanda B. Red (Boston, MA) - - © Amazon.com
Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors; I've read everything he has written. But while I did fall under the spell of "Bridge of Sighs," I must confess also to being a little disappointed by it. It is a big ambitious book, toggling back and forth between the first-person narration of Lou C. Lynch (aka "Lucy"), a great-hearted nervous fellow who runs the family business, a group of corner groceries, in Thomaston, NY; and third-person description of the lives of his childhood friend, Robert Noonan (earlier known as Bobby Marconi), a distinguished artist long lost to Thomaston and living in Venice, and Lucy's wife Sarah, who loves both men and is desired in a different way by each.
While other characters have left small-town life in Russo's earlier books, this is the first time (to my memory) that the author actually follows them when and where they go. I'm glad that Russo is branching out in this way, and the shifts in perspective also permit him to make the interesting point that different characters remember the same events in different ways. There are several gripping moments in the book when Russo's narrative method suddenly illuminates childhood trauma, by revealing what memories Lucy has repressed. At the same time, Russo's characterization of life in Venice, Italy, and later in Manhattan just don't ring as true as his trademark rendering of small-town life, whose secrets he has clearly penetrated, and the movement back and forth between narrators and locations is an awkward complexity over which he does not have complete control.
Another problem is that Lucy is a verbose and sentimental character, so that when he mimics Lucy's voice Russo himself, quite understandably, becomes verbose and sentimental too. That sentimentality then leaks into the rest of the book, which takes the position that certain epiphanies in adolescence (especially falling in love), when leavened with the influence of our parents, have the power to dictate a person's entire character and later personal history. This is finally Lucy's perspective on what makes people who they become, not Russo's, and it's too simplistic a view of the formation of character for the more complex and occasionally even cynical author. Like the descriptions of place, it rings false.
Then, and again like his narrator Lucy, Russo reduces all the characters in the book, especially the parents of the main characters, to stock figures that must "stand for" something. Lucy's father is the optimist, always putting the best face on things and speaking in an annoyingly childish and oafish way. His mother is the realist, beaten down by life and therefore willing to compromise her principles. Noonan's father is the archetypal bully whose commitment to stay true to his own mean-spirited nature brings him into an inevitable Oedipal conflict with his son, while the mother in this family is the eternal passive victim. Sarah's parents inhabit similar dichotomies (curious, sexy, vibrant, alcoholic mother vs. embittered, impotent, overly intellectual father).
Stereotypes like these just aren't enough to sustain this very long book (544 pages), and they aren't worthy of Russo's talent. People may tell themselves stories about how their lives turned on a glance or a word, about how they fell in love fatally at 16, but these stories are insufficient, and it's the novelist's job to indulge them while simultaneously showing us what they leave out. Russo was better at that balance in his other novels. Still, there are some wonderful moments and turns of plot in this book. Noonan's father's attempt to start a new family in order to escape himself is one of these.
Even when he is a little off his game, as he is here, Russo is still a terrific writer, and "Bridge of Sighs" is an interesting performance of some new techniques. One has to admire Russo's attempts to reinvent himself, even as one senses that he himself knew he was having trouble with the book's structure -- Sarah's father, a high school teacher, seems a figure of his creator when he flogs himself through the composition a long novel on which he works every summer, only finally to burn it page by page. If this character, as I suspect, represents Russo's own feelings about the book he had to write under the pressure of following up his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls," we can only be glad he didn't succumb to the character's temptation. And also to hope that he will use the lessons of this book to help him write an even better one next time.
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