Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo (Knopf, 544 pp., $26.95)
The novelist Richard Russo has been called at various times the bard of blue-collar America, a poet among the smokestacks, and the chronicler of down-and-out small towns. Those are all descriptions of someone who has written engagingly and sympathetically over the past 20 years about people living unexceptional lives in faded industrial towns resembling the one in which the author grew up—Gloversville, New York.
Russo has a Ph.D. in literature and spent years teaching in universities, but he seems to have suffered few of the ill effects that such a life might give rise to in a novelist. He’s never written a novel about a novelist struggling to write a novel, for example, nor has he succumbed to the postmodern storyteller’s penchant for obscure, non-linear plot lines. Mostly, his technique is as embarrassingly old-fashioned as some of his opinions: in a 2004 commencement address at Colby College, he urged graduates to become parents at some point in their lives, noting that it was something that all of their parents had done.
Six years after Russo published the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls—a tale of converging family histories, muffled ambitions, and liberation in a faded Maine town—he is back with a new novel. Bridge of Sighs takes place largely on familiar terrain: fictional Thomaston in upstate New York (there’s a real Thomaston in Nassau County, but it’s far more affluent than the down-on-its-luck burg written about here). Like Russo’s previous works, Bridge of Sighs is distinguished by his ability to make everyday life in ordinary places so interesting. While Ishmael writes exhaustively about the finer points of whaling in Moby Dick, in Bridge of Sighs one of Russo’s characters, a butcher, regales us with his expertise in carving a crown roast to suit the tastes of a 1960s housewife (who remembers crown roasts?). Much of the novel takes place in a convenience store inelegantly named Ikey Lubin’s—about as unlikely a setting for a novel that spans decades as one could imagine. Russo knows how improbable this background is, and he glories in it. Indeed, one of his characters says of a cynical English teacher trying to write the Great American Novel, “nothing like Ikey’s was in (that novel).”
Still, though the turf is familiar, the novel’s elegiac tone represents a departure from Russo’s raucous earlier books, Mohawk and Nobody’s Fool, which overflow with appealing scoundrels and cantankerous eccentrics. Bridge of Sighs shows Russo in a more reflective mood, examining the choices that people make and finding that a choice of the ordinary can lead to an extraordinary life. If this book had one of those long and intricate subtitles typical of eighteenth-century novels, it might read, “In which our protagonist manages to miss the ‘60s Cultural Revolution, ignore the Me Generation, and yet find contentment in a convenience store and a faithful wife.”
If that doesn’t seem like grist for a 544-page novel, neither does the bare outline of the book’s plot. Bridge of Sighs largely follows the lives of three childhood friends, beginning in the present and working back and forth between now and then. For Lou, the son of a plodding but good-natured milkman who bets his family’s future on Ikey’s, life can’t get better than staying in Thomaston, marrying his childhood sweetheart Sarah, and running the store, even though the town has been on a downward arc ever since the closing of the tannery that was its main employer.
For Sarah, the choice is more complicated. An artist talented enough to gain a free ride (as everyone does) at Cooper Union in Manhattan, she is the daughter of a bitter father and a self-destructive mother. Not surprisingly, she loves the stability and warmth she sees in Lou’s family, even though Lou’s own mother worries that she might be wasting her life by spending it in Thomaston with her son. During her senior year in high school, Sarah gets her chance to choose the life she wants when Lou’s childhood friend, the troubled but charming Bobby Marconi, returns from his exile in military school, and the three become inseparable. Yet though Sarah finds Bobby extremely attractive, she comes to understand what a dangerous path he represents. She stays with Lou in Thomaston, where they build a life together, starting a family and running the store.
Bobby makes what seems to be the more exciting choice. Forced to leave Thomaston and strike out into the world, he embarks on an improbable odyssey that takes him to international fame as an artist. He so thoroughly rejects his past that he never returns to Thomaston, but instead paints his way through life with a series of wives, and brawling with the husbands of women he beds when he’s between marriages—a life that eventually leaves him weary and unsatisfied. His only connection to his past is the occasional letters he receives in Venice, where he lives, from Sarah and Lou.
Before the novel is over, Sarah gets to choose one more time, as she did in high school, between Lou and Thomaston on the one hand, and the wider world and Bobby on the other. What ultimately drives her decision is the chance to make a family over again, in an unforeseen way, and she knows that Thomaston is the right place to do it. On Sarah’s way to this discovery she sees Bobby once more, but so much time has passed that he doesn’t recognize her—even as she stands in front of the painting portraying her as he remembers her. She understands for certain, then, that it’s time to go home.
The novel’s final words belong to Lou who, unlike Sarah, has been reluctant to leave Thomaston, even to travel on vacation all these years. “This time we will go,” he says of their plans to go to Italy, even to Venice. “We will leave this small, good world behind us with the comfort of knowing it’ll be here when we return. But. We will go.”
When they do go, they won’t find Bobby there. That is as inevitable in Russo’s story as the fact that Sarah would choose Thomaston not once, but twice.