Richard Russo: ‘The Bridge of Sighs’

Gigglers: I’m not going to seek out the newest hardcovers and tell you whether or not to buy them. And while not the Sunday Review, this Sunday blog will explore my brilliant and fascinating thoughts about books. Please use the comments section to share your own thoughts on this book, or whatever you’re reading.

I (finally) just finished Richard Russo’s The Bridge of Sighs. Most people know Russo for his Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls, which is reminiscent for its deep-rooted sense of place. The Bridge of Sighs (which, as a warning is 642 pages and if you missed this blog last week it’s because I hadn’t finished the darn book yet) is, despite its length, a book I didn’t want to end. Russo’s strength is in pulling you into a small town world which you quickly feel like you know everything about, including the people. Of course the point is that there’s really an infinite amount to learn about Thomaston, New York, which unravels as we follow the life of Lou (nicknamed Lucy) Lynch and his family. And by the end of the book, the characters are still evolving (as people do) despite Lou’s mother, Tessa’s firm belief that we may grow, but we don’t change.

A book of this size is about a lot of things. What interested me was the question of whether people are who they are, how much they’re capable of change and whether we decide to think what we want to think and be who we want to be. There was a lot of juxtaposition between optimistic characters who saw the good in the world, and their jaded companions who were often frustrated by that positive outlook.

The main players of this novel are all products of Thomaston, and yet they have been shaped by it and their upbringing in largely different ways. Thomaston might be a small town, but it’s strictly divided into socio-economic sections that one can buy or lose their way into and out of. Lou’s family starts out in the slums of the West End, moves up to the East End and by adulthood, Lou and his wife Sarah are in the prestigious Borough neighborhood. His closest childhood friend Bobby has such a bitter childhood despite making the same geographic transitions, that rather than planting himself in Thomaston, as Lou does, he flees the country, to Venice, home of the Bridge of Sighs, for which the book is named. I don’t have the space to get into the significance of that bridge, nor the friendship between Bobby and Lou and Sarah, but there’s a juicy love triangle involved.

Sarah is the product of parents who are both jaded and unhappy in different ways. Sarah, not wanting to grow up bitter like her parents, but unable to ignore the darker aspects of the world, like Tessa, is the voice of reason to a husband who smiles, goofily, through life. Or mostly smiles, I should say. Lou has “spells” which no one quite understands, but they seem to be the culmination of all of the unhappiness he avoids dealing with. All of these characters have depth, but they are strongly drawn, so while I found myself reminded of people I know, those people are not quite as trapped on within skepticism or optimism as Russo’s characters.

I’m not sure where I would fall on the spectrum either. I consider myself to be a very optimistic person with a desire to be happy, and I do think to some extent, we are as happy as we want to be, or let ourselves be. On the other hand, I don’t ignore the country or the world we’re living in today (well, sometimes I do, otherwise how would I get up in the morning?), which has evolved slightly from that of Russo’s America, but devolved quite a bit as well.

What about you? Do you think most of us are too complicated to categorize, or are most people either happy or discontent with the world?

Book Cover image via Vintage Books

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