Richard Russo has long been a favorite of mine, but I notice I have not read one of his books since I started this blog. Odd.
That could be because his books, like those by John Irving and Pat Conroy are marathons that I’m not always willing to tackle.
I lump the Russo, Irving and Conroy together because they are sort of cut from similar cloth, though Irving’s is special order and Conroy’s is taffeta. Russo’s cloth is denim. It’s dirty and worn, which makes it feel loved, but it can be worn too long.
That’s how I felt reading “Bridge of Sighs,” his 2007 followup to his 2001 “Empire Falls,” which I loved and which won the Pulitzer Prize. His hilarious “Straight Man” is a great novel about academia. “Sighs” is set in the fictional upstate New York town of Thomaston, a place with more character than the people it produces. It’s also a place that literally and figuratively poisons the lives of everyone who lives there.
The novel tells the story of Lou C. Lynch, a kid who, thanks to a teacher, becomes known as Lucy, and his best friend, Bobby, and the girl they both love, Sarah. Lou and Sarah have been married 40 years when the book opens and are planning a trip to Italy to visit Bobby, who has become an internationally known artist.
Russo toggles back and forth between present day—both in Italy and Thomaston where Lou and Sarah still live—and the Thomaston of an earlier, better era. Oddly, the present day is much more interesting than the childhood experiences, which shape the people they become.
As children, Lou, Bobby and Sarah all have major life events transform them, which should be interesting, but they are buried in 642 pages of tedious detail, nasty people (who they keep letting back into their lives) and patently obvious insights.
About halfway through the book I realized that what was making me uncomfortable was Lucy’s hero worship of his father. At first it felt nostalgic and loving, hearing about his father who was not smart or a great provider, but a good, loving man. Then, I came to understand that Lucy’s father was just a sap with no ambition, no ideas of his own, no forward momentum. And that’s when I knew Lucy was a chump, too.
And who roots for suckers who spend all their time defending the easy, uninspired choices they make? Not me.
I sound harsher than I mean to, because there are some beautiful passages and in many parts the story is quite compelling and emotional. But in the end, 642 pages was simply too much time to spend in Thomaston.