Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Bridge of Sighs (2007) by Richard Russo

The most important reason I’d recommend Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo is that it’s one of those novels where the characters seem utterly real. You will come away with the feeling of being a part of their families, their town, and their environments. The novel creates the illusion of having known the characters in the flesh, that the plot of the novel is a set of memories from a past actually shared, actually experienced.

Bridge of Sighs is an expansive novel that sprawls outward and outward from a nexus of two boyhood friends, Lou “Lucy” Lynch and Bobby Marconi. Russo uses a variety of narrative techniques to provide the reader with an intimate experience of the lives, families, friends, and acquaintances of both Lucy and Bobby, and Russo generously does the same for many of the “supporting” characters whose lives are intertwined with those of the Lynch’s and Marconi’s.

The novel starts out with 60 year old Lou “Lucy” Lynch writing his childhood memoir as he strives to preserve his past, an impulse that defines the core of this character: his love of family and of Thomaston (the small town he’s never left), his desire for things to remain unchanged, and his unwavering faithfulness to his father’s corner grocery business and his father’s legacy of hopeful optimism. There are shifts from the pages of Lucy’s memoir to his first-person present-tense stream of consciousness which allows Lucy to reveal how things have changed since his childhood, where people are “now”, and the state of his current life. In other sections written in 3rd person point of view, Noonan (a.k.a. Bobby Marconi) and, later, Sarah (Berg) Lynch become the focal points. They too are given opportunity to dwell on their youth and to reflect on who they’ve become in the present.

The Lynch family is revealed as eminently lovable, even though Lucy’s parents “Big” Lou and Tessa never seem entirely on the same page when it come to ideology or temperament. Tessa is tough as nails, practical, and a realist. Whereas Lou is a big softy, always hoping for the best from the world and from others and consistently optimistic while wearing a goofy grin. They are often at odds in their approach when it comes to their neighbors, the Marconi family.

The Marconis are introduced as a secretive family led by an impenetrable patriarch. Bobby is typically not allowed to leave the house after school, to the constant disappointment and longing of his friend Lucy. Mrs. Marconi also seems to be on a short leash, having to conduct her friendship with Tessa Lynch only in the hours while the men are at work and children are at school. The Marconis give off the impression they wish to keep the entire world away, farther than at arms length.

In Bridge of Sighs’ 528 pages, Russo consistently keep the reader in a state of questioning. Will Lucy ever out grow of his neediness where it came to his friendship with Bobby? Although Sarah and Lucy are married in the present, is there a deep dark secret between Sarah and Bobby? Will Bobby and his father come to blows? Will Sarah’s eccentric, school teacher, father finish his novel and win back his ex-wife? Will Lucy and Sarah actually hear back from Bobby, now a famous painter in Venice, before their trip to Italy? A new question is raised on nearly every page. Some are answered quickly, within a few pages. Others are not resolved until hundreds of pages later. As in life, some questions remain unanswered. However, most of the big questions are resolved in a believable and satisfactory way.

One of the most artistically gratifying aspects of the novel is the lovely symmetries between the experiences and actions of the characters. For instance, Sarah’s choice between “bad boy” Bobby and “good boy” Lucy is paralleled by Tessa’s choice a generation earlier between Dec and Lou. Both Sarah and Tessa are the objects of a cross-racial attraction with significant consequences. Another such comparison can be made between Noonan’s painting of his father and Lucy’s memoir; both men at 60 are reflecting on the days of youth and what made them the men they are today. Also there’s the similarity between Sarah’s painting of the Bridge of Sighs and the appearance of the Bridge of Sighs in the background of Noonan’s painting of his father. To mention only one more, there are the unlikely friendships that cross the divide between race and economic class, Lucy and Gabriel as well as Sarah and Miss Rosa. Many more such comparisons are made throughout the novel, creating pattern of reverberations and echoes that enhance the reader’s experience of understanding how each generation faces many of the same challenges and share many of the same epiphanies.

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