Synopses & Reviews
“An achievement . . . [that] fuses the romanticism of the early Kerouac and his mentor, Thomas Wolfe, with the wry humor of Richard Yates.”—New York Times Book Review
Tommy Ogden, an outsized character holding court in his mansion outside robber-baron-era Chicago, declines to give his wife the money to commission a bust of herself from the French master Auguste Rodin, and instead announces his intention to endow a boys school. His decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Justs emotionally potent novel.
Lees life in the small town of New Jesper, Illinois, is irrevocably changed by the rape of one of his high school classmates. His father, a local judge and a member of “the Committee” of civic leaders that runs the town, votes to suppress the crime in the name of protecting their community. His mother responds by forcing a move to Chicagos North Shore, where Lee enrolls in the private Ogden Hall School for Boys. Both the crime and the school come to profoundly shape Lees knowledge of how the world works. Years later, Lee meets his victimized classmate. Their charged encounter is a confirmation of his understanding that how and what we remember lies at the heart of life.
“Sharply observant, pragmatic, mordantly funny, and stubbornly romantic, Ward Just is a spellbinding storyteller . . . Rodins Debutante is a powerful tale of daunting revelations and determined self-expression.”—Donna Seaman, WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio
“An understated and delicate offering by a master.”—Kirkus Reviews
"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.)
"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)
"Russo makes sexual ambiguity feel homey and familiar, and he does it here with consequences more emotionally weighty than ever before. His novels have that pleasurable roominess of books rich in story and quick in prose style, but in Bridge of Sighs, he crosses from bittersweet comedy to the realm of tragedy." O Magazine
"A great American story....Beautiful, funny, profound and, in the end, quietly devastating. It's a book built to endure." People Magazine
"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
"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
"Don't be misled by the title; this engaging coming-of-age tale has little to do with either Auguste Rodin or a debutante. Instead it begins early in the 20th century with Tommy Ogden, a rich, enigmatic Chicagoan who drunkenly decides one day to endow a boys' prep school. Flash forward a few decades to Lee Goodell, who attends Ogden Hall School for Boys and privately wants to become a sculptor. We follow his life, witnessing the two acts of violence that change him. Rodin's Debutante
is a surprising story, never going where you expect it to, and Just's spare prose packs a solid emotional punch. A-" -Entertainment Weekly
"To his immense credit, Just doesnt turn this into a whodunit—in fact, we never learn who committed the crimes—but is instead focused on the intricate, almost Jamesian unfolding of the personal and private lives of his sharply delineated characters. An understated and delicate offering by a master."--Kirkus Reviews
"Just extends his grand inquiry into family, honor, and injustice in his beguiling and unnerving seventeenth novel. Like An Unfinished Season (2004), this bildungsroman is set on Just's home ground, northern Illinois, where Tommy Ogden, a man of enormous inherited wealth, flagrant taciturnity, and an excessive avidity for shooting animals, turns his massive prairie mansion into an ill-conceived boys' school at the onset of WWI. Lee Goodell, the son of a judge, grows up in a nearby small town, a bucolic place until the Great Depression delivers tramps and a horrific sex crime. Lee, dreamy, kind, and willful, attends Ogden's school, then headed by a Melville fanatic, where he plays football and swoons over a sculpted bust by Rodin. Determined to become a sculptor, Lee rents a basement studio on Chicago's South Side, where a knife attack jeopardizes his artistic vocation and involves him in the lives of his poor, struggling neighbors and the mission of a compassionate African American doctor. Stealthily meshing the gothic with the modern, the feral with the civilized, in this mordantly funny yet profoundly mysterious novel, Just asks what divides and what unites us. What should be kept secret? Which teaches us more, failure or success? And of what value is beauty? HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Award-winning Just attracts more readers with each uniquely compelling novel."--Booklist, STARRED review
Louis Charles Lynch (also known as Lucy) is sixty years old and has lived in Thomaston, New York, his entire life. He and Sarah, his wife of forty years, are about to embark on a vacation to Italy. Lucy's oldest friend, once a rival for his wife's affection, leads a life in Venice far removed from Thomaston. Perhaps for this reason Lucy is writing the story of his town, his family, and his own life that makes up this rich and mesmerizing novel, interspersed with that of the native son who left so long ago and has never looked back.
Bridge of Sighs, from the beloved, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, is a moving novel about small-town America that expands Russo's widely heralded achievement in ways both familiar and astonishing.
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. Ogden’s decision reverberates years later in the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming of age is at the heart of Ward Just’s emotionally potent new novel.
Lee’s life decisions—to become a sculptor, to sojourn in the mean streets of the South Side, to marry into the haute-intellectual culture of Hyde Park—play out against the crude glamour of midcentury Chicago. Just’s 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 Rodin’s 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 Lee’s boyhood and the beginning of his understanding—so powerfully under the surface of Just’s masterly story—that how and what we remember add up to nothing less than our very lives.
A finely observed coming-of-age novel, set in Chicago, with a boarding school for boys and a never-solved sexual crime at its center, from the National Book Award finalist Ward Just.
About the Author
WARD JUST's seventeen previous novels include Exiles in the Garden, Forgetfulness, the National Book Award finalist Echo House, A Dangerous Friend, winner of the Cooper Prize for fiction from the Society of American Historians, and An Unfinished Season, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.
Reading Group Guide
“A magnificent, bighearted new novel [and] an astounding achievement. . . . A masterpiece.”
—The Boston Globe
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your groups discussion of Bridge of Sighs, a rich, multilayered novel by Richard Russo, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls.
1. Bridge of Sighs
alternates two narratives: Lucys first-person memoir and the story of Robert Noonan. What are the advantages of this structure? How does it affect the way the plot unfolds? Does it influence your impressions of the main characters?
2. How does Lucys description of Thomaston create an immediate sense of time and place [pp. 10-13]? What details did you find particularly evocative? What does Lucys tone, as well as the way he presents various facts about Thomaston and its history, reveal about his perceptiveness and his intelligence?
3. Lucy says, “Ive always known that theres more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesnt regret that he isnt more fully understood?” [p. 14]. To what extent does this feeling lie at the heart of his decision to write his book? Does it play a central role in memoir-writing in general? What else does Lucy hope to accomplish by recalling his past?
4. The horrific prank the neighborhood boys play on Lucy triggers the first of many “spells” he will have throughout his life [pp. 25-36]. What is the significance of his spells? What do they reveal about the emotional attachments, anxieties, and doubts that define him both as a child and as an adult?
5. Lucy makes many references to the pursuit of the American Dream and its implications within his own family and in society in general [pp. 62-66, 93-94, 110-111, for example]. In what ways did American attitudes in the postwar years embody both the best parts of our national character and its darker undercurrents? What incidents in the novel illuminate the uneasiness and enmity that results from the class, racial, and economic divisions in Thomaston? Do Lucys beliefs, judgments, and achievements (as a businessman and as a happily married husband and father) color his reconstruction of these events?
6. Unlike Lucys story, Noonans story is told in the third person. Is the change of voice a literary device, a way of adding variety to the novel, or does it serve another purpose? In what ways does it help to convey the basic difference between Lucy and Noonan and the way they see themselves and their place in the world? Compare the tone and language Russo uses in creating Lucys voice with the style he uses in his portraits of Noonan. What aspects of Noonans character and personality come to life in his conversations with his art dealer and his mistress [pp. 41-61]; his reactions to Lucys missives [pp. 158-162] and to Mr. Bergs class in high school [pp. 375-380]; and, ultimately, his thoughts and behavior on arriving in New York [pp. 608-618]?
7. Lucy and Bobby [pp. 156-157 and pp. 170-171, respectively] attempt to explain why their lives—and Sarahs—have turned out the way they have. Do you agree with Lucy that “to see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, dramas enemy”? To what extent does Bobby share this view? Why does Bobby see himself as being in control of his life in a way that neither Sarah nor Lucy is? Is this a result of his background and the circumstances that forced him to prepare himself for a second act?
8. Tessa is the practical, steady member of the Lynch family. In what ways does her behavior reflect her own choices, needs, and desires, and in what ways are these determined by the time and place in which she lives? What qualities make her stand out, not only in Lucys eyes, but also within the community as a whole?
9. Does Lucys identification with his father distort his image of his mother and his understanding of her strengths and her weaknesses? Beyond her immediate anger, what drives her to tell Lucy, “I never wanted you to not love your father. . . . I wanted you to love me. . . . Did it ever occur to you, even once during all those years, that you might have taken my side? That I might have needed a friend?” [p. 263]? Is this a valid criticism, or is Tessa herself responsible, either inadvertently or intentionally, for the differences between Lucys relationships with each parent?
10. Sarah comes from an unconventional family, especially in the context of Thomaston. Is her ability to deal with the eccentricities of her parents and the summer/winter living arrangements they established unusual? In what ways does she not only adapt to but also benefit from the very things that set her apart? Is her attraction to the Lynches in part a reaction to her dysfunctional family?
11. Are Mr. Bergs obsessions—with perpetuating his image as a rebel, with the “great” book he is writing, and with his failed marriage—sympathetically drawn? What is the significance of the fact that he is Jewish? What biases, both good and bad, do the people of Thomaston (including Lucy) have about Jews and what impact does this have on Berg and his reputation within the community?
12. What role does her mother play in Sarahs sense of self? What are the implications of her views on marriage [pp. 394-395]? Do they influence Sarahs feelings about her own marriage and that of her in-laws? Why is Sarah drawn back to the home she shared with her mother when she faces a crisis in her relationship with Lucy [pp. 564-607]? What does she learn by revisiting the past?
13. What traits do Tessa and Sarah share? In what ways do their marriages mirror one another? Do you think either—or both—foolishly gave up their own dreams and desires, sacrificing a life of adventure and sexual passion for the love and security of a “good” man? Behind their apparent contentment, are there indications that they regret the choices they made?
14. The Bridge of Sighs in Venice connects the Doges Palace to an adjacent prison, and, as Lucy relates, “Crossing this bridge, the convicts—at least the ones without money or influence—came to understand that all hope was lost” [p. 387]. How does the historical function of the bridge, as well as the myths surrounding it, relate to characters lives? Why has Russo chosen it as the title of the novel?
15. Richard Russo has written about small towns throughout his career. What are some similarities between Bridge of Sighs and previous novels like Empire Falls and Nobodys Fool? In what ways does Bridge of Sighs enhance and expand the portrait of America that is so central to Russos writing?