Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bridge of Sighs

First, I must divulge how in love with Richard Russo's novels I am. Nobody's Fool was the first I read and I immediately went to find his two preceding books, Mohawk and The Risk Pool (which my friends Jen and Derek had recommended years before, a recommendation I, for some stupid reason, ignored). I loved everything about them: the artistic, but conversational tone; the truant and impish father figures; and, most of all, the humor. Russo's small town, upstate New York characters were people you wanted to go have a beer with because they were not only compassionate and smart, but they were witty as hell. If you can make me laugh in a novel that deals with some serious issues, I'm yours. So I could forgive a lot when it comes to Russo. Unfortunately, with Bridge of Sighs, I felt there was a lot to forgive.

While Russo keeps his traditional setting of upstate New York intact, he goes in a different direction with his main character's father issues. This time, his protagonist, Lucy Lynch (an unwelcome corruption of Lou C. Lynch) dwells on a father who is caring and ever-present. Big Lou isn't the brightest bulb, but he's a kind-hearted soul and Lucy adores him. This adoration and Lucy's instant nostalgia for every aspect of Thomaston, NY fills page after page of a memoir Lucy is working on. And Lucy, apparently, doesn't possess Russo's economy with words. The novel feels about two hundred pages too long.

There are welcome breaks in Lucy's story to recount the modern day life of his childhood friend, Bobby, who has become a famous painter, and Sarah Berg, the woman who loves both boys and eventually marries Lucy and settles in  Thomaston with him. Bobby's character provides the Absent Father story line that is prevalent in so much of Russo's work, but this time the father is an abusive bully instead of the happy-go-lucky wastrels of the earlier novels.

The problem in Bridge of Sighs is with the pretext of the memoir Lucy is writing. Lucy's pie-eyed vision of his beloved hometown isn't meant to be taken at face value--he's an unreliable narrator and we depend on the stories of Bobby and Sarah to get the real scoop. In the end, it feels as if Russo has pasted these various viewpoints together once he realized that Lucy's tale wasn't much more than a wordy postcard to his town and his father. The last hundred pages nearly redeemed the book with a couple of surprises, but the saccharine ending confirmed the feelings of frustration that accompanied the rest of Bridge of Sighs.

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