Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reading Journal: "Bridge of Sighs"

Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs. Vintage Books 2007. Paperback edition 2008. $14.95 ($16.95 Canada). 642 pp.

Coming in right under the wire, one of the best novels I've read in 2008: Richard Russo's big, big-hearted, and engrossing novel of art, love, and the American dream. Set on familiar ground in the snow-covered terrain of Upstate New York, in the fictional north-of-Albany town of Thomaston, Bridge of Sighs begins as Louis Charles Lynch, known as "Lucy," sets out to tell the story of his ordinary life as a son, friend, husband, and successful neighborhood grocer. It doesn't sound like terribly compelling material, but it is. Russo's novel explores and illuminates the complexities of class and race, art and life, love and hate, security and risk, in a story that's both heartbreaking and life-affirming.

Lou is sixty years old, looking back and trying to find "the pattern in the carpet," the common threads that make sense of his life. He has a sense that, to quote Heraclitus, character is destiny, that the path we take in life is determined by who we are, that our character limits the choices we are willing to make. And our character is shaped to such a large extent by our families, our parents in particular. Can we ever escape those influences and create for ourselves a life that is entirely our own? Or is happiness to be found not in escape, but in an embrace of those influences and the possibilities they offer us? Characters in the novel sense the presence of parallel lives—lives lived in dreams, in art, in fantasy, in selective memory—and often struggle to balance their love for the life they've really lived with their regret over the roads not taken.*

Bridge of Sighs is, coincidentally, the novel I started to read when I gave up on Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Russo's sensitive portrait of a businessman in a small middle American city provides such a stark contrast with Lewis's broad satire. Lucy Lynch is a kind of Babbitt: an optimistic, civic-minded businessman who is trying to make sense of his life. But instead of emphasizing the limitations and falseness of his protagonist's life, Russo finds its richness and truth. Instead of mocking the smallness of a life, Russo finds the beauty and the depth in that smallness. Russo's novel, while clear-eyed about America's troubled past and persisting divisions, is ultimately hopeful that small strides can be made toward realizing the American dream.

There were aspects of the novel that reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye: the theme of childhood friendship, the theme of art, the central image of a bridge. An important character who appears late in the novel also reminded me of Anne Patchett's Run. Like Atwood and Patchett, Russo is a skillful and perceptive writer, with great sympathy, humor, and humanity. The world he creates—the world of Thomaston, New York—is both comfortable and conflicted, both nurturing and poisoning. It feels real. It feels a lot like home.


*Compare my poem "To the Daughter I Never Had," especially the last three lines.

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