One of my book groups recently read Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of Empire Falls (which I have not read…yet). When an authors win the Pulitzer, I tend to pay attention to their other books as well, and this, his most recent release, looked like just the book to take along with me to Italy. After all, it’s supposed to be about a trip to Italy…supposed to be.
I know I’m probably ruining a part of the book by saying this, but after all this ramping up to a trip to Italy, they never end up going. Russo takes his characters elsewhere. And boy was I pissed. Don’t dangle something like a tour de Italy in front of me, string me along for 500 chapters, and cop out in the end. Can you tell I’m a little peeved about this?
Anyway, the book has its upsides, too.
It’s about a small town and two generations of people within it. Each generation repeats the same failings as the other, and it’s a little depressing in that regard (everyone seems doomed to fail). Plus, the town, a fictitious one in upstate New York, is slowly killing all the people in it because of a toxic stream, polluted by an old tannery. Not the happiest place to live.
Lou Lynch (Lucy…a nickname that plagues him his entire life) idolizes his best friend, Bobby Marconi, to the point where the author hints he might even be homosexual. Bobby is everything that Lou is not, tough, smart, and good with women. The story follows their journey to adulthood, including an early, life altering event for Lucy. Crossing a bridge on his way home from school, some local bullies lock him in a trunk and abandon him there. Lucy experiences the first of his many “episodes” where he freezes into a semi-catatonic state temporarily. His childhood is filled with such experiences, which continue, sporadically, into his adult years.
Then comes Sarah, the love of Lucy’s life. She’s bold and no-nonsense, looking for love from Lou and his family. Sarah becomes a regular fixture in the Lynch corner store. But here’s the problem…Bobby likes her too.
The main intrigue for the book came from this love triangle. Sure, the relationships between the generations were interesting, but for the most part, I found them kind of repetitive and fatalistic. People die left and right in this small town. And not many people are truly happy.
Perhaps that’s what bothered me most about the book. Where is the joy? The only joy seemed to come from getting out of the town, getting laid, and hanging out at the Lynch store (which had its own unique family dynamic involved, with a very disturbing Uncle and some scary upstairs renters). At the end, at couple characters showed hope for change, but it wasn’t in the transforming way that you’d hope for, after going through so much dreariness. Basically, I wanted Jesus to show up and fix these screwed up lives.
But then, this isn’t Christian fiction. Interestingly, one of my favorite characters is a Christian who isn’t painted in a bad light. In fact, hers is one of the only positive stories. But you have to wade through 400 pages to get there, so I’m not sure its worth it.
Russo excels in character development, slowly divulging intriguing details about the characters’ former lives and making you want to follow their progression. He also masterfully alternates points of views, using different narrators skillfully, something that few authors can do (Next week, I’ll be sharing an example of how NOT to do this).
Because of these skills, I’m not giving up on Russo. I’m sure Empire Falls will be on my reading list, eventually. I need a few faster moving and less depressing novels before I try Russo’s writing again.
And I hope I’m not sounding too PollyAnnaish, that Jesus should swoop in and make all these people perfect. I know life is hard, even when you’re blessed to have Jesus helping you. But what people need is a good dose of the hope and joy that only Christ can give. And even one character with that joy wasn’t enough to bring up the spirits of the novel and make it a little less depressing.
“Sighs” is right.