Set in the fictional small town of Thomaston, N.Y., outside of Albany, Richard Russo's new novel Bridge of Sighs tells the story of Lou "Lucy" Lynch, his parents, his girlfriend/wife, and his boyhood best friend. Their stories are not necessarily remarkable, but they are powerful. Indeed, Russo's great skill, as best seen in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, is telling stories about small-town life and the universal complexities that inevitably exist in them.
We've all seen or experienced at least some of the events in Bridge of Sighs: schoolyard bullies, racism, courtship, marriage, divorce, financial peril, misunderstandings, and death—by accident, suicide, and cancer. That pretty much covers all of us.
And that's what makes Bridge of Sighs so compelling. Lucy is one of us. He longs for when life was simple. He loves the past, but is scared of the future. He's not stupid, but he has no desire to leave his home town. Since he was a boy, his only desire was to run the family's corner market. He's comfortable, and that can make us uncomfortable. We can't help but ask ourselves if we're like him.
Bobby, his boyhood friend, is decidedly not like Lucy. While Lucy had a stable, so-called normal family, Bobby's was a mess, and he couldn't wait to escape. He became a famous painter and eventually settled in Venice (hence the title of the book). He never understood or cared when Lucy would send him remember-when letters, or news clippings, or obituaries. For Bobby, the past was the past; for Lucy it was the best part of his life.
Like many books that are more than 500 pages, Bridge of Sighs could benefit from some editing. The last 50 pages seem forced, and the ending feels contrived. Russo's attempt to write ethnic dialect is strained. But his talent as a storyteller wins out. He nicely mixes chapters in the novel, using Lucy as a first-person narrator as well as having an omniscient narrator. It's an effective approach, as it gets us inside Lucy's head (and he is, eventually, unfailingly honest) and we also see what's happening beyond Lucy's line of sight. Despite its shortcomings, Bridge of Sighs is worth reading—we may learn something about ourselves in its pages.