Friday, September 19, 2008

Book Review: Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Richard Russo builds a bridge
from the present to the past
in this extraordinarily crafted masterpiece.


Themes of love, familial struggles, prejudice, the fickle nature of fate, and the question of just how much our memory can be clouded by both nostalgia and our unwillingness to admit past mistakes are woven throughout novelist Richard Russo’s latest epic Bridge of Sighs. Newly released as part of Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries series, fans of the author won’t be disappointed by this remarkably flawless and multi-layered work. Just in time to kick off his 12-city publicity tour across the country which will find him first in Seattle, Washington on September 17, the 642 page opus (complete with unexpectedly long chapter breaks) may seem daunting at first glance but soon enough you’ll find yourself hooked.
And although I’ll admit to a personal bias for my first Russo novel — the Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls — as my own favorite composition by the author, I would definitely agree with the back cover acclaim by USA Today that it’s the author’s “most ambitious” novel to date. The book chronicles the intertwined lives and loves of three distinct characters. In doing so, Russo goes forward and backward in time and location charting the course of Lou C. Lynch (unfortunately saddled with the nickname “Lucy” since boyhood), Sarah (his wife of 40 years) and the estranged friend they both love, Robert Marconi (who’s reinvented himself as the painter "Robert Noonan" in Italy), and the ways in which their lives have affected one another.
In Bridge of Sighs, Russo’s main character Lucy recalls, “I learned a lesson: it might be true that I could choose who to be, but that didn’t necessarily make me memorable.” Yet in the hands of a true master storyteller such as Russo, every single character is memorable to the reader and they remain constant in our imaginations long after he initially introduces them to us. Similar to Russo’s admiration for Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, given what he noted was the author’s “importance he places on vivid minor characters… [and the realization] that we recognize ourselves in a character’s weakness as much [as] his strength.” This is especially helpful with Sighs since it possesses a far greater scope than his previous Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary classic Empire Falls and often Sighs’ supporting players — not to mention his major leads — seem to blossom like flowers, revealing a new petal or thorn with each turn of the page. Thus, just like the northeastern small town settings he’s famous for writing, it suddenly becomes less like a literary device and more as if Russo — like two of the painter characters in Sighs — were working with a canvas and managing to perfect an incredibly lifelike form of written portraiture. And indeed, I was stunned by his painstaking attention to detail and the way that Russo — ever the confident navigator — manages to lure his readers into one type of thinking and a set list of assumptions before tripping us up completely. For — to cite just one example centering on Lucy — Russo reveals something several hundred pages in that makes us reconsider everything that has come before it.
Far from employing cheap trickery or twists just for their own sake, the breadth of the novel made me admire his craftsmanship in awe, wondering just what his process must be like in preparing such an intricate and detailed book. Unlike the popular paperbacks awaiting impulsive shoppers at the grocery store checkout counters or the inviting beach reads near the front of our local bookstores when the temperatures increase, nothing ever seems rushed or unplanned about a Russo novel. One is confident that he cannot simply just “wing it,” and it makes the experience all the more rewarding for the reader and indeed, once you’ve finished it, you may find yourselves looking over the Reader’s Guide questions to see what you may have missed the first time around.

“There’s a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternate universe and it’s some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that,” Russo has said and this admission makes perfect sense given the familiar Americana feel of his previous books such as Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls (both made into films), which on the surface seem like quintessential Norman Rockwell-esque towns when they are anything but.
Set in another one of his prototypical New England towns evidenced in his earlier work, in Sighs, we become acquainted with the most likely Great Gatsby-inspired landscape of Thomaston. Located in upstate New York and aside from “two square blocks of the Hill,” where the African-Americans resided and the privileged few of wealth who lived in the “Burrough,” Thomastown is divided into two distinct main sections, not unlike the West and East Egg of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
Although instead of Jay Gatsby looking across a sea to the hopeful beaconing light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the river in Thomaston is polluted by the local tannery and the cancer statistics for the community are so high they’re incalculable. However, in addition to its "staging," the author seemed to draw more from Fitzgerald's themes. Russo states that contrary to the popular opinion, “Fitzgerald understood that our most vivid dreams are often rooted in self-doubt and weakness.” And in fact, Russo challenges his Sighs characters more than most writers but takes yet another cue from a literary idol, Mark Twain, by never letting his work get too grim, noting that “you can go to the very darkest places if you’re armed with a sense of humor.” In his childhood — after Lucy’s family makes the trek to move to the better part of town with his sweet-natured yet na├»ve father who thrives on the approval of others and his more cynical yet undeniably wise mother, she shares her view on the middle class. Although she admits their family is lucky, “the middle, she said, was the real America, the America that mattered, the America that was worth fighting wars to defend. There was just the one problem with being in the fluid middle. You could move up, as we had done, but you could also move down.” However, Lucy who doubles as a narrator for his own story in first person as he’s begun writing his memoirs, is quick to point out that “It wasn’t the Berlin Wall, of course … but visiting [the other side] … was like traveling to another country, with its own set of customs. Naturally, such separateness occasioned fear and mistrust, yet just as often yearning.”
And thus while the West End is the rougher part of town, the East End residents are predominantly middle class, yet all characters seem to face their own unique brand of dysfunction and self-created as well as coincidental drama. Of course this is all far less significant than the subtle cancerous environmental threat at hand of where they reside — which is never forgotten yet underscored throughout the book — in favor of storytelling on a grand, old-fashioned scale that spans decades and countries. After 60 years of life in the city limits of Thomaston, and no doubt inspired by the floodgates that have opened internally as he’s started to put his life story down on paper, Lucy and Sarah make the decision to travel to Italy to reunite with their old, beloved friend who’s now residing in Venice. However, as Lucy’s recollections begin to deepen as he takes inventory of his entire history and is able to view some of the more significant events of his family’s life with the wisdom of his age, he begins to have second thoughts. Moreover, in questioning if “the living of life [is] so different from the telling of it? Do we not, a hundred times a day, decide not to bear witness? Do we not deny and suppress even at the level of instinct?” Lucy discovers things he doesn’t want to admit about himself, his parents, as well as his wife who may never have gotten over an unfulfilled love for their long-lost friend.
Filled with evocative language, Bridge of Sighs evolves throughout its many eras both tonally and thematically, yet its greatest strength is in Russo’s storytelling and the way that he constantly reassures us that we’re in extraordinarily capable hands even when he goes from the first person of Lucy to the third person of other characters such as Sarah and Robert. And as we read paragraphs about the way “our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime,” admittedly, we begin to fear that Sighs may grow increasingly melancholy as it meanders along. And indeed — just like life — heartbreak and tragedy do find their inevitable place in both the West and East Ends of Thomaston.
However, by seasoning the book with humor, unexpected twists and sunny bursts of optimism from the unlikeliest of characters and situations, he’s crafted another wholly original work that again stays true to the unpredictable nature of life. Admirably, in the same turn, he invites us to — much like Lucy — begin to get lost in the reverie of our youth in the revelation that we aren’t so very different from the characters he’s invented after all. So in the end, it seems as though Lucy had nothing about which to fear. Yes, we — like Lucy — can choose who to become, but when one has been written by Russo, Lucy Lynch will never have to worry about not being memorable as Russo will continue to gain readers with each successive work and generation.

Order Russo's Newest Work
Available August 4, 2009

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