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Bridge of Sighs: A Novelby Richard Russo
Russo is a modern master of absorbing characters, brilliantly sharp dialogue, and a warm-hearted yet strangely thrilling storytelling style. The only sighs this elegiac novel produces are of wistful satisfaction.
Synopses & Reviews
Six years after the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo returns with a novel that expands even further his widely heralded achievement.
Louis Charles ("Lucy") Lynch has spent all his sixty years in upstate Thomaston, New York, married to the same woman, Sarah, for forty of them, their son now a grown man. Like his late, beloved father, Lucy is an optimist, though he's had plenty of reasons not to be — chief among them his mother, still indomitably alive. Yet it was her shrewdness, combined with that Lynch optimism, that had propelled them years ago to the right side of the tracks and created an "empire" of convenience stores about to be passed on to the next generation.
Lucy and Sarah are also preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy, where his oldest friend, a renowned painter, has exiled himself far from anything they'd known in childhood. In fact, the exact nature of their friendship is one of the many mysteries Lucy hopes to untangle in the "history" he's writing of his hometown and family. And with his story interspersed with that of Noonan, the native son who'd fled so long ago, the destinies building up around both of them (and Sarah, too) are relentless, constantly surprising, and utterly revealing.
Bridge of Sighs is classic Russo, coursing with small-town rhythms and the claims of family, yet it is brilliantly enlarged by an expatriate whose motivations and experiences — often contrary, sometimes not — prove every bit as mesmerizing as they resonate through these richly different lives. Here is a town, as well as a world, defined by magnificent and nearly devastating contradictions.
"Signature Reviewed by Jeffrey Frank Richard 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. " Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Richard Russo was already the patron saint of small-town fiction, but with his new novel, 'Bridge of Sighs' — his first since the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Empire Falls' — he's produced his most American story. Once again he places us in a finely drawn community that's unable to adjust to economic changes, and with insight and sensitivity he describes ordinary people struggling to get by. But more... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) than ever before, Russo ties this novel to the oldest preoccupations of our national consciousness by focusing on the nature of optimism and the limits of self-invention. This, he writes, is 'the narrative of our family, its small, significant journey. Is this not an American tale?' Indeed, no other modern author has defied the 'small' in small town with such passion. On the first page of 'Bridge of Sighs,' Russo dismisses any concern about provincialism: 'Some people, upon learning how we've lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying.' Here is a story to knock those condescending city slickers on their backsides, a story true to the pace and tenor of town life but rife with all the cares and crises of people everywhere. It takes place over many decades in Thomaston, N.Y., where the tannery slowly laid off and poisoned residents until most of them died or moved away. But not all-around nice guy 'Lucy' Lynch, who grew up here, never left and is now nearing retirement. He acquired that embarrassingly feminine nickname in kindergarten when the teacher called for 'Lou C. Lynch.' All this and much more is explained in a history he's writing of the town and his life, a project inspired by an upcoming trip to Italy, where he hopes to see an old friend. He tells his wife that it should take 50 pages, 'a hundred, tops,' but since we've got 500 to go, we know that's misleading. Lucy's other misdirections are harder to spot, although he admits early on that 'it is tempting to lie (about) everything.' Why such a blessed and well-liked man should feel tempted to lie about anything is one of the many mysteries that slowly unfold. 'Bridge of Sighs' crosses through many subjects and themes — it's Russo's most intricate, multifaceted novel — but the story revolves around Lucy's relationship with his father, the man he adored and resembles in so many ways that it troubles him. Big Lou was a slightly goofy, sentimental man who grew up during the Depression but emerged convinced 'that we were living a story whose ending couldn't be anything but happy.' There's a touch of Willie Loman here, except in this version, against all odds, he does okay. A milkman at the dawn of the supermarket era, Big Lou refuses to acknowledge the imminent demise of his career. Lucy's mother, on the other hand, is a sharp, realistic woman, who finds her husband's unbridled optimism exasperating. She makes a point of contradicting his cheery predictions, but it makes no difference to Big Lou, who 'maintained, if you kept your nose clean, good things were eventually bound to happen to you.' Lucy spends much of the novel negotiating these opposing points of view, aware that he always took his father's side against his mother's deflating realism. 'I still remember how much this upset me,' Lucy writes. 'There wasn't supposed to be any limit to the benefits of hard work and honesty, and her saying there were limits implied that she didn't believe in America, or, worse, in us.' Though decades have passed, Lucy remains torn between the two people who loved him, still trying to work out what kind of man he has become. This is not a particularly dramatic story — a racially charged high-school beating provides the only real fireworks — but Russo's sensitivity to the currents of friendship and family life, the conflicts, anxieties and irritations that mingle with affection and loyalty, make 'Bridge of Sighs' a continual flow of little revelations. The most interesting relationship in the novel is Lucy's unlikely friendship with Bobby Marconi, a tough kid who despises his abusive father as much as Lucy adores his own. He's confident and athletic, the mirror opposite of Lucy. Their friendship is badly one-sided, but Lucy is too infatuated to notice, and Bobby is just kind enough to resist telling this nerdy kid to get lost. Even after Bobby and some other ruffians stuff him in a trunk and traumatize him for the rest of his life, Lucy remains determined to believe that his friend wasn't involved. Russo narrates significant sections of the novel in the third person, filling in details about Bobby's disturbing family life and 'Lucy's terrible neediness.' In addition, we get several chapters narrated by the adult Bobby, now 60, a famous artist living in Italy. The cumulative effect is a story of constantly evolving complexity and depth, a vast meditation on adolescence and the way it's remembered and misremembered to serve our needs. It's peevish to complain about anything in such a lovely, deep-hearted novel, but I couldn't help letting out a few sighs of my own as the plot continued to branch out. There's simply too much here and too much redundancy. Lucy suggests that 'it's all important,' but as much as I enjoyed the book, I'm not convinced. Two of these characters are obsessed with writing very long stories, and Russo seems to have picked up the same compulsion. When he gets caught up in the thrills of a high-school romance — Which boy will she choose? — the 'Bridge of Sighs' seems to be crossing over 'Dawson's Creek.' A late section involving Lucy's wife and an adorable little black child sounds extraneous and precious. And there's a tendency toward portentous profundity: 'Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we're faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we'll do, but who we'll be,' etc., etc. At such times, the plot, which is never particularly energetic, stalls, and the characters seem overwhelmed, rather than sustained, by the author's wisdom. Listed like this, these complaints sound more damning than I mean them to. Actually, in the course of this enormous and enormously moving novel, I was continually seduced by Russo's insight and gentle humor, his ability to discern the ways we love and frustrate each other. Toward the end, before a trip to Boston, Lucy writes, 'We will leave this small, good world behind us with the comfort of knowing it'll be here when we return.' One sets down Russo's work with the same comforting reassurance. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Here is the novel Russo was born to write....It is a seamless interweaving of childhood memories, tragic incidents, and unforgettable dialogue that is so natural, funny, and touching that it may, perhaps, be the best of Russo's many gifts." Booklist (Starred Review)
"That Russo manages to juggle so many characters, themes, places, and time periods through 528 delicious pages is an astounding achievement. From its lovely beginning to its exquisite, perfect end, Russo has written a masterpiece." The Boston Globe
"[E]ngrossing....Russo writes about these characters...with such warmth that, whether it turns out to be a hellhole or heaven on earth, you're grateful to be back on his turf. (Grade: B+)" Entertainment Weekly
"It is a novel of great warmth, charm and intimacy, but not one of earth-shattering revelations....Some of this book's most memorable moments take the form of sharp, funny storytelling. Some emerge more amorphously through intuitive visions." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"[Russo's] most ambitious and best work....It's a big-hearted novel, driven by vivid and complex characters....Bridge of Sighs is dramatic in a small town kind of way, which is a big part of its beauty." USA Today
"Despite the fact that its title points us to the familiar Venetian span, Bridge of Sighs settles us firmly in Richard Russo territory....Russo here is doing what he does best, putting a microscope over what looks like vacant territory and showing us the abundant life beneath the surface." Miami Herald
"While Russo's tale gets off to a slow start and the attempt to tell the parallel stories of Louis and Bobby is not always successful, Russo's novel is nevertheless a winning story of the strange ways that parents and children, lovers and friends connect and thrive." Library Journal
"While perhaps not quite the equal of Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs is anchored by the wry humor and innate decency Russo brings to his characters....And nobody does upstate New York...better than Russo." The Christian Science Monitor
"[I]n the course of this enormous and enormously moving novel, I was continually seduced by Russo's insight and gentle humor, his ability to discern the ways we love and frustrate each other." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"[A]bsorbing, bittersweet and multifaceted....[Russo] masterfully reconciles and interweaves local color and social mobility with pertinent characterization..." The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Russo makes all his characters come alive on the page. In so doing, yet again, he provides the kind of compelling company any serious reader of fiction knows doesn't come along often." Chicago Sun-Times
"As you reach the end, you want to turn back to the opening pages and start once again. Russo's ability to present individuals with dignity and grace make this a quietly astounding novel that should be on everyone's fall reading list." BookReporter.com
Six years after his bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Russo returns with a novel that expands his widely heralded achievement. This new work courses with small-town rhythms and the claims of family, yet it is brilliantly enlarged by an expatriate whose motivations and experiences prove every bit as mesmerizing as they resonate through these richly different lives.
Tommy Ogden, a Gatsbyesque character living in a mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Rodin and announces instead his intention to endow a boys school. Ogdens decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Justs emotionally potent new novel.
Lees life decisionsto become a sculptor, to sojourn in the mean streets of the South Side, to marry into the haute-intellectual culture of Hyde Parkplay out against the crude glamour of midcentury Chicago. Justs signature skill of conveying emotional heft with few words is put into play as Lee confronts the meaning of his four years at Ogden Hall School under the purview, in the school library, of a bust known as Rodins Debutante. And, especially, as he meets again a childhood friend, the victim of a brutal sexual assault of which she has no memory. It was a crime marking the end of Lees boyhood and the beginning of his understandingso powerfully under the surface of Justs masterly storythat how and what we remember add up to nothing less than our very lives.
About the Author
Richard Russo lives with his wife in coastal Maine.
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