Love and lament
Bridge of Sighs captures the rhythms of a vanishing small-town America
Bridge of Sighs
By Richard RussoKnopf, 528 pp., $26.95
Richard Russo sets his magnificent, bighearted new novel, his first since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Empire Falls" (2001), in Thomaston, the dying industrial town in upstate New York where the tannery is turning the Cayoga Stream red and causing tumors in residents. For certain inhabitants, Thomaston is the grain of sand in which they see the world. For others, it's the place they yearn to escape. For Russo, this small town has big themes; tiny transformations produce large results. Working on a broad, thickly populated canvas, Russo chronicles decades of intertwining lives, limning the ties that bind and break amid a community's divisions of geography, class, and race. While the narrative, told through the voices of multiple characters, focuses on blue-collar Thomaston, the story also moves to the piazzas of Venice and the shabby apartment buildings of Long Island. However circumscribed these characters' lives, their questions remain universal: Is choice an illusion? Do temperament, class, past, and family determine destiny? Can people change? And what about love? Love, in all its varieties - passionate, misguided, brutal, redeeming - lies at the center of "Bridge of Sighs." Its pulse is a love triangle.
At 60, Lou C. Lynch, nicknamed Lucy, starts to write the history of his life. Lucy is an optimist. Like his father, Big Lou, the amiable milkman who trusts everything will work out for the best regardless of evidence to the contrary, the son takes things at face value. From childhood, his closest (and only) friend has been Bobby Marconi. Lucy and Bobby are opposites. Lucy plays it safe; Bobby courts danger. Lucy adores Big Lou; Bobby's father is abusive. Their common bond is their love of Sarah Berg.
A welcomed third wheel, Sarah, the daughter of the local English teacher and a slatternly mother living on Long Island, casts their differences into high relief. Parallels abound. From a traumatic childhood incident on a footbridge, Lucy develops spells. In Italy, Bobby has night terrors. Lucy betrays Bobby on his father's milk truck. Bobby kisses Lucy's girl. Bobby is exciting. Sarah rides on the back of his motorcycle; she shares a melting kiss. Lucy is simply good. Can Sarah be in love with two boys at the same time? When Bobby and Lucy pick her up at the train station after a summer away, Bobby climbs into the back of the car. "You can ride up front with us. There's room for three," Lucy tells him. Years later, after Bobby has fled to Europe, Lucy comments, "We'd always been a threesome." The deal-breaker in Sarah's decision to marry Lucy is his family; Sarah loves all the Lynches, whose grocery store "represented a yearning - for refuge, a small, safe place in the wider, hostile world."
Though Lucy hates leaving home (at college in Albany he makes no friends and returns every weekend), the world is not so safe in Thomaston, either. The footbridge scare, the polluting tannery, a kiss between races, a kiss between boys, illicit affairs, fights - the consequences reverberate through the generations, wreaking havoc. Death, disgrace, illness, financial ruin, suicide, jail, and war hover over the landscape. Cancer threatens everyone. Even more fragile than the body is the human heart. Love can be both a salvation and a trap. "The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. . . . Blame love," Lucy says.
Still, "people don't change," observes Lucy's mother, Tessa, only circumstances. Even the renegade Bobby acknowledges that "to imagine a different life was to imagine a different self with which to live it." If she had married Bobby, Sarah realizes, her surroundings might be more interesting but she'd still be miserable. Marriage to Lucy means no worries about change. "With Lucy, one thing didn't lead to another."
If people don't change, they can still surprise you. Perhaps it's the light others view them through that alters them; perhaps it's the artist's eye that transforms. A painting can shock and move you and cause spells. A husband can glimpse his wife's feelings for someone else and hide a letter. A son can reevaluate his violent father. Art can heal and disturb. Someone can learn your deepest secrets and still love you.
In the process of exploring such contradictions, Russo provides sharp social commentary. "Up wasn't the only direction you could go in America," Lucy notes. The fence that Gabriel Mock keeps painting, like a black Tom Sawyer, encloses a slave owner's ruined mansion. "Do you think it's fair that man should spend his whole life painting and repainting a fence that belonged to a white man who owned slaves?" Tessa asks. Though Russo offers up plenty of humor, his tone is elegiac: "The loss of a place isn't really so different from the loss of a person. Both disappear without permission," Lucy remarks. He is always looking back, always remembering. The uneventful life can be rife with drama.
Whatever the scale of their lives, Russo's characters - the stars and the walk-ons - are gorgeously drawn. The writing is always in service of illuminating them - with one exception. The black characters speak in a corny-sounding dialect, which can make the reader stop to decode sentences. In this case, the reach for authenticity doesn't work.
But everything else works brilliantly. The plot twists and turns, loops around, doubles back on itself. Images mirror images - the iconic footbridge foreshadows the Bridge of Sighs. A dreambook in earlier chapters reappears later as another dreambook. On the train home after Bobby has moved to Italy, Sarah sees his face in a 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. Blame love, indeed.
Mameve Medwed's most recent novel, "How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life," is out in paperback. Her fifth novel, "Of Men and Their Mothers," will be published in May.