Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

I like nothing more than a book whose words grab me on the first page and don't let go.  Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs is just such a book.  The protagonist in our story is Louis Charles Lynch (sadly nicknamed "Lucy" in kindergarten when the teacher called out "Lou C. Lynch?" in roll call on the first day).  I will call him "Lou" here, though, since that is the name that he preferred.  In our introduction to Lou, he tells us that he and his wife have lived their entire lives in the town of Thomastown, New York.  Lou understands that many people find his contentment with living in one place quaint and, perhaps, a bit pitiful.  He notes, though, that, "I remind such people that until fairly recently the vast majority of humans have been circumscribed in precisely this manner and that lives can also be constrained by a great many other things:  want, illness, ignorance, loneliness and lack of faith, to name just a few."   Well said!

The story flows seamlessly back and forth between the present and the past, with Ikey Lubin's neighborhood market (owned first by Lou's father and now by Lou) playing a central part in the tale.  Given Lou's world view, it is not surprising to learn that the same people who were important to Lou in his youth play a large role in his adult life and that family is always of the utmost importance.  We meet Sarah, Lou's wife, and Bobby Marconi, Lou's best friend from childhood.  We meet Lou's parents, Tessa and Big Lou, and his Uncle Dec.  We meet Sarah's parents:  her father a pot smoking high school English honors teacher who makes his students think and her mother a discontented artist who lives on her good looks.  We meet Bobby's parents as well:  his father an abusive government employee and his mother a cowering woman who repeatedly tries--and fails--to run away from her life.

Lou's reminiscences about growing up evoked memories of my own teenage years.  At one point he talks about Friday night dances at the junior high, saying, "We shared, all of us, a powerful sense that what was at stake...was nothing less than the rest of our lives, that our every move in that gymnasium had an unimaginable significance, that we were being watched, judged, elected or damned."   It reminded me of the first dance I went to at St. John's Catholic School with my friend Karen Koehnemann.  I remember exactly what I wore (too humiliating to write about here!) and how Karen and I told our parents that we wanted to arrive "fashionably late".   It seemed so important at the time, and dancing with your favorite boy to the last song of the evening (usually "Angie" by the Rolling Stones since it was both cool and long)--or sitting sadly in a chair on the side of the room--could make or break your whole life.  

As the book progressed, I had no idea where the story was going, and I was content to let it wind its way along.  I enjoyed getting a deeper understanding of the characters, watching Lou, Sarah and Bobby grow from the children they were to the adults they became.   The story veered off in an unexpected way in the last hundred pages or so, but Russo managed to wrap it all up in a nice package with a bow on top by the end. 

I have to admit that I do not understand the title of this book.    (This is one time I would have liked to have a Kindle so that I could go back to find each time the Bridge of Sighs was referenced in the book.    Maybe then I'd have a clue!)   The Bridge of Sighs connected the old prisons in Venice to Doges Palace.  Convicts caught their last glimpse of Venice--and freedom--as they passed from one world to another.  Perhaps it's a reference to the tug that people (other than Lou) feel to let go of what they know and move on to another world.   Perhaps it's a reference to the ties between your past and your present.  Or perhaps I'm just giving this way too much thought!  In any event, Russo is a wonderful writer, filling his pages with interesting characters and a story that keeps you engaged.  A definite book to add to your "to read" list. 

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