Venice Offers Small-Town Characters Perspective on their Past
A Contrary review by Thea Brown

	 Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs tracks the lives of three childhood friends: Lou, stuck with the indelible nickname “Lucy” as a derivation of his full name (Lou C. Lynch); Sarah, Lucy’s high-school sweetheart, whom he eventually marries; and Bobby, a troublemaker who is the only one of the close group to escape the depressed, post-industrial upstate New York town of Thomaston, where they all grew up.
	 In the novel’s present, middle-aged and nervous Lucy struggles to cope with his impending trip to Venice, where he and Sarah hope to reconnect with Bobby, who’s become a famous, expatriated painter. To make sense of his anxiety about venturing from the town he loves and has never really left (as well as the anxiety that Sarah has finally tired of him), Lucy immerses himself in the transcription of his life.
	 Lucy’s first-person, working-class autobiography occupies the bulk of the novel, though sections of third-person narration recount Bobby’s and Sarah’s lives during and since childhood. Ultimately, Bobby and Sarah provide the forces that push and pull Lucy into the kind of domestic, local relevance that he, like his bumblingly optimistic father before him, so desperately seeks.
	 This is where Russo, as in many of his previous works, shines: he deftly constructs constellations of complex and compelling characters. For example, Lucy’s phobias and neuroses tend to hold him in place (he refers to his own condition as “inertia rationalized”), but Lucy expands and contracts relatively, pressed as he is by the small workings of Bobby, Sarah, and everyone else who populates Russo’s created world.
	 Bridge of Sighs also highlights Russo’s gift for communicating the intricacies of small-town life. Thomaston, and the slow death it undergoes, is palpable and close. Russo invokes Venice, the perpetually sinking city, as Thomaston’s counterpoint and the place to which Bobby escapes. While the comparison between the two cities provokes thought – each city’s obsolescence hangs over its inhabitants, though in different ways – the sections of the novel that take place in Venice lack some of the vitality that Russo infuses in his small-town scenarios.
	 Still, Venice works as a fitting reference for a story about the deterministic pressure of the past. Lucy, who reflects obsessively, reexamines every moment of his history, searching for answers and hope among his memories. His pathos amuses and endears, irritates and touches. When Lucy assesses the rough legend Bobby left behind in Thomaston from his middle-aged perspective, he thinks:

 “In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end – though who can say it’s wrong? How different things look then! Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance. To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy.” 

	 Bridge of Sighs feels quiet and even a bit worn, filled as it is with local, familiar complications – the death of industry, racial and economic divisions, schoolyard bullies, generational gaps, and love. But Russo excels at those complications, and their impact on the people who suffer them. He leaves the reader to question the personal and collective histories of the story’s three main characters. We end up just like Lucy, persistently re-tilling the soil of his memories, searching for new answers and hidden revelations.

Thea Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Madison, Wisc.

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Bridge of Sighs
by Richard Russo
2007, Knopf
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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