Written by on February 28, 2008

Schlub stays put.

Stephen Metcalf, critic at large for Slate, has this to say about Bridge of Sighs in his NY Times review:

“Someone — it’s been attributed to everyone from Dostoyevsky to John Gardner — once said there are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. To these Richard Russo has added a third: schlub stays put.”

Metcalf goes on to give the book a positive review, but if you had to reduce this 500+ page wrist-breaker to a few words, those three work better than most.

Once again, Russo returns to the ex-industrial Northeast. There really is a Thomaston, New York, but it’s in wealthy Nassau County, a world away from Russo’s fictional Thomaston, where the now-defunct tannery once made the river run red, or whatever color dye was being used that day.

He follows three friends from childhood to their 60s: Lou C. (“Lucy”) Lynch, Bobby Marconi, and Sarah Berg. All three come from families filled with one sort of tension or another. The Lynches are the least corrosive, since Lou’s parents spar (mostly good-naturedly) over their different world views: his mother’s pessimism, and his father’s stubborn optimism. The Marconis are a hot-tempered father and a passive mother, seemingly helpless to do anything but bear more sons and try to avoid the wrath of her husband. (In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book, Mrs. Marconi tries for the umpteenth time to run away. Her husband catches her before she gets out of town, rips open her suitcase, and throws her clothes all over the street. Bobby dutifully collects them in the ruined suitcase and brings them home, knowing as he does it that this will only provoke his father more). Sarah’s parents, while divorced, still act out their hostilities through her.

Part of what attracts Sarah to Lucy is his family and their convenience store, Ikey Lubin’s, which Lucy’s dad bought over his wife’s strenuous objections. The struggling store becomes a second home after school and on weekends for both her and Bobby Marconi, who are happy to have an alternative to their own angst-ridden homes. When she and Lucy first meet, she literally draws herself into his life. Here he describes her sketch:

“The store got busy then, so it was later that afternoon, long after Sarah was gone, that I finally had a chance to inspect the finished product and see that she’d added people to the drawing. A female figure, clearly my mother, could be seen bending over to slip a salad bowl into the meat case, the door to which was held open by Uncle Dec, recognizable by his shiny black hair. The man behind the register, by the bearlike slope of his big shoulders, was obviously my father. Also, she’d give Ikey’s some business, an idea she probably got from me. The day before, sitting at the Woolworth’s counter, I’d confessed our continuing anxieties that Ikey’s might fail, so she’d given us three customers. The nearest, his back to the viewer, was about to enter the store, and his opening the door gave us that privileged glimpse inside. The two people at the register, a boy and a girl, seemed to be completing a purchase. Only when I looked closer did I realize they were Sarah and me. I was identified with a few tiny strokes expertly representing the plaid shirt I was wearing that day, whereas Sarah, half a head shorter, was identifiable by her dark, curly hair. On closer inspection, I saw that we were holding hands.

“She had drawn us together. Which is how I learned that we were.”

There are several subplots and many minor characters, but the emotional center of the book is the relationship between Lucy, Bobby, and Sarah, and the ways that they love and sometimes disappoint each other. Lucy has inherited his father’s optimism, but not his inability to see himself clearly. Bobby flees the scene of his youth to live abroad as an artist, rejecting even his father’s name. Sarah, who loves both of them, chooses the more predictable goodness of Lucy, but worries that she’s squandered her artistic gifts by staying in the smaller world of Thomaston. At the book’s dramatic climax, she finds herself faced with making this choice again, or finding another way to live, perhaps on her own.

» See a video of Richard Russo doing an extended reading from the book, followed by a Q&A session.

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