In a series of novels culminating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo has staked a strong literary claim to the small, dying towns of the northeastern United States. His sixth novel, Bridge of Sighs, mines that familiar ground, but it's a tribute to Russo that in it he has created a cast of memorable characters that reveals the complexity of even the most ordinary lives.
Most of the events of Bridge of Sighs take place in the grim upstate New York town of Thomaston, home to a tannery whose chemicals frequently dye the town's Cayoga Stream an ominous red, giving rise to fears that an unusual number of cancer deaths somehow are related to that pollution. Thomaston's West End, East End and Borough neighborhoods are as stratified as Indian castes, the town's residents moving from one to the other as their economic fortunes wax and wane. Much of the novel, which spans a period of 50 years ending in the present, is narrated by Louis C. ("Lucy") Lynch, a lifelong resident of Thomaston. In his mid-60s, he's decided to write an account of the life he, his family and friends have lived in this fading town. Yet he's frustrated that his story probably is little more than my poor attempt to restore what was and is no more. Lucy's father, Big Lou, is a former milkman who loses his job and decides, over the objections of his wife, to purchase a corner grocery store called Ikey Lubin's across the street from their house. The store almost becomes a character in the story, and after Big Lou dies, Lucy prospers, expanding the Lynch Empire to three convenience stores, a video rental outlet and an ice cream stand.
The novel's action revolves around the relationships among three families the Lynches, Marconis and Bergs. Lucy and Bobby Marconi are friends until a job promotion enables the Marconis to leave the West End. Sarah Berg marries Lucy, but the tug of an attraction between her and Bobby persists long after he flees Thomaston to escape his abusive father and establishes himself as a famous painter in Venice, the location of the Bridge of Sighs that gives the novel its title. The final portion of the story focuses on Sarah's emotional struggle to come to terms with the premature deaths of her parents her mother an alcoholic artist and her father a disgruntled and eccentric high school teacher and failed novelist.
Bridge of Sighs is crammed with incidents of sexual betrayal, domestic violence, racial prejudice and emotional cruelty. And yet side-by-side with these disturbing moments are equally vivid ones of compassion, hope and love. Russo's gift is that he portrays all with sensitivity and keen insight, resisting the pull of melodrama, and painting even the simplest characters with nuance and empathy.
In this densely plotted and moving novel, as in the lives of most of us, the victories and defeats are often small and impermanent, leaving scant evidence of their occurrence outside the immediate circle of those affected. But in the end, as Lucy, observes, The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and fill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.