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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 40.
- Review Date: 2007-08-13
- Reviewer: Staff
SignatureReviewed by Jeffrey FrankRichard Russo’s portraits of smalltown life may be read not only as fine novels but as invaluable guides to the economic decline of the American Northeast. Russo was reared in Gloversville, N.Y. (which got its name from the gloves no longer manufactured there), and a lot of mid–20th-century Gloversville can be found in his earlier fiction (Mohawk; The Risk Pool). It reappears in Bridge of Sighs, Russo’s splendid chronicle of life in the hollowed-out town of Thomaston, N.Y., where a tannery’s runoff is slowly spreading carcinogenic ruin.At the novel’s center is Lou C. Lynch (his middle initial wins him the unfortunate, lasting nickname “Lucy”), but the narrative, which covers more than a half-century, also unfolds through the eyes of Lou’s somewhat distant and tormented friend, Bobby Marconi, as well as Sarah Berg, a gifted artist who Lou marries and who loves Bobby, too. The lives of the Lynches, the Bergs and the Marconis intersect in various ways, few of them happy; each family has its share of woe. Lou’s father, a genial milkman, is bound for obsolescence and leads his wife into a life of shopkeeping; Bobby’s family is being damaged by an abusive father. Sarah moves between two parents: a schoolteacher father with grandiose literary dreams and a scandal in his past and a mother who lives in Long Island and leads a life that is far from exemplary.Russo weaves all of this together with great sureness, expertly planting clues—and explosives, too—knowing just when and how they will be discovered or detonate at the proper time. Incidents from youth—a savage beating, a misunderstood homosexual advance, a loveless seduction—have repercussions that last far into adulthood. Thomaston itself becomes a sort of extended family, whose unhappy members include the owners of the tannery who eventually face ruin.Bridge of Sighs is a melancholy book; the title refers to a painting that Bobby is making (he becomes a celebrated artist) and the Venetian landmark, but also to the sadness that pervades even the most contented lives. Lou, writing about himself and his dying, blue-collar town, thinks that “the loss of a place isn’t really so different from the loss of a person. Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence.”If there are false notes, they come with Russo’s portrayal of African-Americans, who too often speak like stock characters: (“Doan be given me that hairy eyeball like you doan believe, ’cause I know better,” says one). But Russo has a deep and real understanding of stifled ambitions and the secrets people keep, sometimes forever. Bridge of Sighs, on every page, is largehearted, vividly populated and filled with life from America’s recent, still vanishing past.Jeffrey Frank’s books include The Columnist and Bad Publicity. His novel, Trudy Hopedale, was published in July by Simon & Schuster.
Richard Russo chronicles a life's quiet victories and defeats
In a series of novels culminating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo has staked a strong literary claim to the small, dying towns of the northeastern United States. His sixth novel, Bridge of Sighs, mines that familiar ground, but it's a tribute to Russo that in it he has created a cast of memorable characters that reveals the complexity of even the most ordinary lives.
Most of the events of Bridge of Sighs take place in the grim upstate New York town of Thomaston, home to a tannery whose chemicals frequently dye the town's Cayoga Stream an ominous red, giving rise to fears that an unusual number of cancer deaths somehow are related to that pollution. Thomaston's West End, East End and Borough neighborhoods are as stratified as Indian castes, the town's residents moving from one to the other as their economic fortunes wax and wane.
Much of the novel, which spans a period of 50 years ending in the present, is narrated by Louis C. ("Lucy") Lynch, a lifelong resident of Thomaston. In his mid-60s, he's decided to write an account of the life he, his family and friends have lived in this fading town. Yet he's frustrated that his story "probably is little more than my poor attempt to restore what was and is no more." Lucy's father, "Big Lou," is a former milkman who loses his job and decides, over the objections of his wife, to purchase a corner grocery store called Ikey Lubin's across the street from their house. The store almost becomes a character in the story, and after Big Lou dies, Lucy prospers, expanding the "Lynch Empire" to three convenience stores, a video rental outlet and an ice cream stand.
The novel's action revolves around the relationships among three familiesthe Lynches, Marconis and Bergs. Lucy and Bobby Marconi are friends until a job promotion enables the Marconis to leave the West End. Sarah Berg marries Lucy, but the tug of an attraction between her and Bobby persists long after he flees Thomaston to escape his abusive father and establishes himself as a famous painter in Venice, the location of the Bridge of Sighs that gives the novel its title. The final portion of the story focuses on Sarah's emotional struggle to come to terms with the premature deaths of her parentsher mother an alcoholic artist and her father a disgruntled and eccentric high school teacher and failed novelist.
Bridge of Sighs is crammed with incidents of sexual betrayal, domestic violence, racial prejudice and emotional cruelty. And yet side-by-side with these disturbing moments are equally vivid ones of compassion, hope and love. Russo's gift is that he portrays all with sensitivity and keen insight, resisting the pull of melodrama, and painting even the simplest characters with nuance and empathy.
In this densely plotted and moving novel, as in the lives of most of us, the victories and defeats are often small and impermanent, leaving scant evidence of their occurrence outside the immediate circle of those affected. But in the end, as Lucy, observes, "The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and fill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up."
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.