Bridge of Sighs is an example of Richard Russo’s skill in taking the seemingly mundane everyday lives of Americans and creating an engrossing, intimate portrayal of their hopes and frustrated dreams. The story is largely based on the rather self-indulgent reflections of Lou C Lynch, or Lucy. Reflections that appear at first completely unjustified as he has, on the face of it, lived a relatively unextraordinary life. The small town of Thomaston, which he brings to life with melancholic devotion, also appears on the surface of very little interest compared to any other. However, Russo’s magic lies in drawing you close to a world that you would otherwise overlook, to reveal their intricacies and hidden nuances; depths that hook you in as the inhabitants play out their lives, each decorated with their own individual tragedies.
Lucy is the exemplification of the American dream as his family, alongside that of his supposed friend Bobby Marconi, move up through the social strata laid bare by claustrophobic Thomaston, a town divided into the impoverished West End, the up-and-coming East End and the society heights of The Borough. The book opens with Lucy walking through his hometown, where he has become a sedate well-respected big fish in a little, polluted pond. The fact the town is poisoned by the tannery industry, specifically run by Borough residents the Beverleys, perhaps reflects Russo’s opinion of the poisoned-chalice offering of the American dream. That the poisoning is permitted to happen over the course of the book illustrates the cloying inertia of the town, unwilling to disrupt the safety of the established order and rise up against injustices, a point that is only too well made by the brutal beating of a young black boy while half the school looks on.
The love of the town by Lou Lynch, despite his good nature, gradually elicits an intense frustration as his narrow vision is exposed by the adventures and innate flare of Bobby Marconi and the Lynch-muted under-accomplishments of his brilliant wife. Certain qualities of Lucy are admirable, and are attributes that you wish you could see more in people. He is kind, patient, and accepting, bearing no prejudices and treating all those around him as equals. His family also provide a warm sanctuary in an unforgiving world. The reader becomes well aware that the family fortunes can easily slip in the opposite direction as the Lynch family, led by formidable matriarch Tessa, continually fight the dragging tide that threatens to pull them back westwards. However, Lucy’s persistence in attaching land and people to him, together with his passivity, is intensely frustrating at times as you yearn for certain characters, particularly the women like his mother and Sarah, to break free and flourish sticking one finger up at Thomaston in the process. This is indeed what Bobby Marconi does and this in my opinion makes him the hero of the book.
At times, despite Russo’s obvious craftsmanship, it is hard to keep involved with this slow-paced book, especially as you may fall out of love with Lucy as his less-than-shining personality is exposed by a story of his own telling. However, you will be left with a warm regard for the subtle nuances of American society, of people’s psychologies in an unforgiving world, and appreciate the danger of unquestioned, self-limiting horizons.
By Kate Vickers