Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

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Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A corner store owner looks back through his insular life to his teenage years in his hometown, with all its flaws. A heightened level of detail adds to the charm, but also to the length.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 704 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099458975

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Many people in this book start it with issues with a certain Mr Marconi. In the recent past, the first person narrator who the world knows as Lucy, despite his being male, experiences a lot of his family's keeping-up-with-the-Joneses regarding Mr Marconi. This is the age of a struggle for affluence in the US - cars are a status symbol people might afford to buy but not use, those new-fangled superstores are driving the corner shops out of trade, family meal-times are starting to disappear, and television has formed recent standards of etiquette - if you receive visitors, do you turn it off to talk, or leave it on as it may be their only chance of watching?

The Marconi household - increased almost annually by a new son - is the source of some mystery, and antagonism. Lucy needs the eldest son Bobby as a best friend, but can't always have his own way in that regards. It seems Lou Sr wants to befriend the Marconi father as well, but Lucy's mum refuses to allow that - while at the same time carrying on a secret friendship with Mrs Marconi. There seems to be some unknowables going on behind closed doors, and a lot of unmentionables going on regarding class that are more public, but that are just as impossible to talk about.

In the modern era, artist and Venice resident Noonan has issues with his father, drawing a picture that inexorably ties his self-portrait with an image of his father - who, it is soon revealed, is Mr Marconi. Why has he changed his surname, why live in Venice, and is there anything to his thinking he's dying of cancer?

He might have got cancer if anything from the river being flooded with industrial pollution in their youthful hometown of Thomaston, New York, where much of the action is set. Of course, those toxins might not be the only ones... Noonan's scenes are mostly in the present, but even he is drawn back (mostly by Lucy) to the days of their youth, growing up in a town with a great class divide, and a great class awareness.

We receive most of that through Lou's parents - mother adamant she wants more for her only son, but realising how often any struggle for betterment is futile and beyond them by most conventional means, because 'it just is'; and father much more stoic - willing to improve himself, perhaps move to the better areas of town, which he has known from his working as a milkman there, but happy to swim along and not upset the apple-cart.

Other characters soon arrive - Mock and his son, Lucy's uncle, Lucy's future wife (whose scenes alone perhaps draw the slow pace the most), all with their part to play in a rich tapestry of small town life, and a great deal to subtly tell us about family connections, fatherhood and sonhood (and I know that's not a word) and the times the scenes are set in. For all the racial fights, thieving, heroism, and social tension, this is a completely realist novel. And for a book mostly about etiquette, social standing, societal conventions and so on it is a vital element that we get a realistic feel - if any of these lives strike a bum note, if any life's concerns come across as false, The Bridge of Sighs could collapse quite quickly. It doesn't.

I have often found modern American fiction greatly lacking in interest - the impression upon reading "Pulitzer Prize winner" a great big "so what?!" - but the 2002 winner here delivers a very smart, if long, read. The blurb insists the book is about America today - despite hardly any scenes and very few relevant details being set there - and it is only with relief that I say you can completely gloss over any allegories, metaphors or such similar, and instead read a quite engaging tale of American youth. While the narrators are now in their sixties, the teenage experiences Lou Jr divulges (and he himself is an interestingly flawed narrator) are the highlight of the book and told with great detail and an honesty that comes with that.

Nor is the detailing done in a forced way - all the scenes of note have great importance - the 'surfing' on the back of the milk van, for instance. It is very noticeable though how every conversation is recorded with all its spoken nuances, and unspoken addenda and every recollection of the ageing Lucy can freely take a page or more. (He professes to want to write a hundred-page autobiographical story, but we get a lot more.)

The characters may well be politicised in their attempts or not to make a living for themselves and their child, and the fights among the teens of Thomaston may be class-based, but there is no preaching, and instead a humanitarian narration that offers charm, insight, humour, and a recommended narrative.

It can't be ignored that this is a hefty book - the 500pp are densely packed with a small print, but for those who don't mind dedicating quite a few evenings this book is well worth it. I recommend it to anyone, especially to those who will be put off by the 'state of the nation' trappings it doesn't deserve, and am grateful to the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag to sample. We also have a review of Russo's That Old Cape Magic.

So if you're left wondering why it only receives four stars, so am I. Perhaps it was the long haul, perhaps the slight lack of fireworks caused by the realistic small town reminiscences, perhaps the hiccups caused by people being known by two names, perhaps some slight quibbles with the jumps between narratives (regarding both who is narrating, and the jumps in time), but don't be put off. I think this should be read, but while it's admirable entertainment for a long time, there's a shortfall before it becomes a loveable, must-keep book.

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