One of the more ironic aspects of love, is that the more one experiences it, the more difficult it can be to understand. We see that perfect person across the room and suddenly find ourselves unable to function. But sometimes we find the courage, and then we date, we marry, we share lives, we just begin to relax – and then it falls apart, who knows why, and we are left to examine the evidence of its undoing, alter our strategy, work on our appearance, and try again. Or not. Somewhere in all that activity, in that constant anxiety, are the answers, we are sure. But every time we think we’ve got one pinned down it’s revealed to be nonsense, because the answer for me isn’t the answer for you, at least not today.
Where does one begin to parse love? For Richard Russo it’s back to upstate New York, this time to the small, failing town of Thomaston, just three quarters of an hour down the thruway from Mohawk, the setting for his first novel some twenty years ago. Hio\s writing has largely stayed in the New York-New England area. In an essay he wrote a few years ago, Russo explained that to him, the setting of a book was very much like a character, and when portrayed properly added to the development of the human characters. His first novel, “Mohawk,” was originally placed in Arizona (under another title). It simply didn’t work there, he said, because the descriptions and feel of the place were too much those of a tourist, rather than a native. It’s interesting that in “Bridge of Sighs” several chapters take place in Venice, Italy, but except for dropping the names of a few restaurants, one might not know it. Of course the character who lives there is something of a tourist, having been transplanted from upstate.
Somehow we never tire of Russo’s places, the characters’ lives so intertwined with the fortunes of their hometown they can never be separated, and he builds on these relationships to create spectacular depth. In Thomaston young Lou C. Lynch (Lucy, thanks to a teacher who said it too fast when taking attendance), is a child seeking to avoid the local bullies. He’s kidnapped by them near and dumped into a trunk at an abandoned mill. They try to scare him by pretending to saw the trunk in half, but it works too well – Lucy is too scared and too slow to realize he could have walked away at any time. Too scared also, to admit that one of the bullies is the boy he idolizes as his best friend, Bobby Marconi. After that he’s never quite right again. Lucy is plagued by spells, reliving the incident at he most inconvenient times.
Much of the book is written first-person, from Lucy’s view. Russo, who can make anything work, paints Lucy in an as unfavorable light as an author dare make a central character. He is big and dopey, sentimental and all-too trusting, aspects his mother, Tessa, tries throughout his adolescence to talk him out of. But her real-world logic didn’t work on his father either, and the two of them remain loveable doofuses for many years.
Big Lou (Lucy’s dad) is the cushy rock that holds the Lynch clan together, despite the fact he’s oblivious to the snubs of neighbor Marconi (Bobby’s dad), and the tension between Tessa and his brother, Dec, who had a torrid affair before she decided to get serious about life and marry him instead. And now they all work together in the family convenience store, struggling to make ends meet, rubbing elbows, rubbing each other the wrong way, but working it out like a 1960s version of the Waltons. It’s a tough go at first, but eventually the store holds its own against the corporate-owned A&P, and provides a warmth that pulls in customers, as well as teens looking for a refuge from the cold of their broken home lives.
Lucy, stumbling his way through high school, still lacks for friends. Bobby returns from military school and Lou (the grown-up Lucy) reattaches himself to his boyhood idol. Bobby thinks the big kid is a bit of an embarrassment to hang out with, but he’s not as bad as he used to be. After all, Lou has somehow managed to get himself a girlfriend. She’s just a shy, sweet artist, and from the day they got together they both realized it would be a lifelong affair. But although she’s not really Bobby’s type (he’s dating Nan, the Barbie doll cutie whom all the boys want), there’s something about Sarah he can’t shake out of his system. She feels the same way about him. Their private talks have a depth that neither shares with their significant others.
So here’s where Russo gives us the showdown: which kind of love will win out? The long, slow, comfortable love of two people who have made their commitment and maintain it, like a pot of soup over a low flame, or the passionate, full burn of a love that is just waiting for something to provide the spark. Is she too good of a girl to abandon Lou? For Bobby, does he love Sarah only because she’s Lou’s – is it more jealousy than love? With the constraints placed upon them, Sarah and Bobby may never know from where their love is born, and that’s exactly why it will never go away, even after Sarah and Lou are married, with child, and take over the store from Big Lou and Tessa.
The questions never stop coming for us, and for Bobby, who leaves Thomaston after an explosive scene. He changes his name from dad’s Marconi to mom’s Noonan and directs his passions towards art. Following in Sarah’s example he becomes a painter. Not just a painter like her, but a world-renowned artist. He leaves the states and wanders Europe, settling for the last decade in Venice, home of the infamous bridge (which both of them wind up painting at various points in their careers). He paints bestsellers, while Lou and Sarah mind the store. Love’s not done with any of them, though. Even at sixty, Sarah and Bobby harbor unresolved feelings for each other, and a planned trip by the couple to Italy encourages Sarah to put her thoughts in a letter to Bobby, which Lou discovers. For once, Lou angers. He hasn’t had a spell for years, but now he zones out and the trip is cancelled. Sarah questions her life with him and leaves – for how long even she doesn’t know. She heads to New York. Bobby’s on his way to the city to show his latest work. Perhaps, if they meet, they could still be friends, or maybe more. But then there’s Lou – big, sweet Lou – who loves them both, standing there like the big galoot he is, in between them. How could they do it to him?
It takes an author like the Pulitzer Prize winning Russo (for “Empire Falls”) to artfully track the lives of these characters and about half a dozen more over a period of more than fifty years. It’s a seamless web of fiction that, like the best literary works, is more real than real life. There may be no other author today who so fully captures the feelings and motivations of people, and who does it without gimmick or melodrama, in easy, accessible language that mirrors the way his characters live. That his subjects think and react the way his readers do is Russo’s genius – like many works of genius it seems so simple when it is presented on the page, but in analysis the scope and effort become awesome.
Does “Bridge of Sighs” hold any answers for us? Think about your loves – the love you have for your spouse, for your children and parents, for your friends when you were growing up, the ones you have now, for the people you dated before you made that big commitment and became who you are. In all that lovin’ have you ever come up with any of the answers? Have you ever figured out why it happens like this? Or is it just as fulfilling to keep playing the game, to keep trying and winning, trying and losing, and to hold on to the memories? That, after all, may be all we can take out of it. For Russo, it is enough.
Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
New York, 2007
On sale October, 2007