I bought The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, after reading a very positive review on arlingwords‘ blog. I found it at the book fair in Nelson for $2. This book was published in 2007 and was later translated into French, as many other of his books. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Empire Falls, published in 2002. The Bridge of Sighs is 528 page long and although well written, easy to read, and in general, very interesting, it would have gain from having less pages.
The story revolves around Lou and his family, living in a small town in the United States in the post-war (2nd) era. Lou grew up in Thomaston (a fictional town near New York) a city he has never left. His father was a milkman and after losing his job, he bought a convenience store (against his wife’s will). Lou later took over his father’s business (instead of studying, as his mother wished), acquired over time a few more stores he is about to slowly pass over to his only son. The actual story begins when Lou is about fifty years old and has just made the decision to go to Italy with his wife, an art teacher and painter, in remission from cancer. He has also decided to write his story, and thus, that of his family, his friends and his city. Looking at Lou’s childhood allows the reader to observe the life of a dying city, as they exist not only in the US but worldwide. In Thomaston, the tannery not only allowed its inhabitants to “earn a living”, but also to die, because of the pollution it caused in discharging toxic waste into the river. It will close sooner or later, but people who have a very high cancer rates have ambivalent feelings toward the industry that has given them a way to earn a decent living. This small town is a metaphor for the United States, but also elsewhere in the world, where companies have developed cities around a single industry. Once their resources have been exhausted, they simply close down and leave populations into disarray. What fascinated me most in this book, though, is how Russo shows us a community through the innocent eyes of a child and how, over the years, his vision evolves. Over time, the reader can see how Lou reassess his father (whom he adores), his mother (whom he likes less), his friends, his wife and himself, but remains, despite its growing lucidity, an optimist who wants above all that all is well. Russo’s greatest talent is his ability to suggest a lot more than the naive words he puts into Lou’s mouth. Moreover, through Thomaston’s story, that Lou sees as good a structure as can be to ensure the happiness of its citizens, Russo reveals slowly, but surely, the degree of hypocrisy necessary to its “proper functioning”. In the end, under the thick layers of good behaviours, lurks a despair and loneliness all the more painful that it has no voice. This is in my opinion the finest quality of the book, which no doubt comes from the great compassion the author feels for all his characters.
The Guardian was very flattering in his assessment of the book and willingly accepted that the “great” American novel is better than its British counterpart, but insisted that unlike other novelists (like Annie Proulx, for example), where the grandeur is evident in the vastness of the landscape, Russo’s book achieved the same success by situating the action in a small town. The critic of the New York Times was less kind to the author, as he believed that the Bridge of Sighs is more or less a repeat of his book published in 2002, for which he won the Pulitzer. I cannot comment on that, since I have not read the previous book, but the one I read is good enough to make me want to read another. The New York Times also believed that certain narrative angles are implausible and somewhat awkward, especially the excuse he gives himself in the character of Lou who wishes to write his story (highly unlikely for a small store owner) but that did not bother me. This is actually an element of fiction writing about which I have often thought of lately. I wonder indeed why the characters must be credible when we know that reality is always much more incredible than fiction. And since this is fiction, I wonder why reader want believable characters. It seems to be a pervasive questioning in the minds of creators. In the past few months, many American writers who were asked their opinions of Donald Trump said that if they tried to put such a character in a novel, it would be immediately rejected for its lack of credibility (!). As to which of the British or American novel is greater, as stated by The Guardian, again, I have no particular opinion, I read great novels from one side or the other of the Atlantic, but one thing is certain, their aesthetic and style are different.
The great strength, and perhaps thereby, the great weakness of this author, is perhaps his mastery of anecdote. Indeed, Russo makes the story go forward through comprehensive and effective anecdotes. The weakness, I sometimes felt, is that the book risks becoming a collection of anecdotes, rather than a novel with a vision. Russo does not do that in The Bridge of Sighs, because most of the anecdotes lead to an overall impressive global vision, but the danger is felt in some anecdotes not seeming to bring anything special to the story. I hope, nonetheless to find, when I next visit the bookfair, either his most recent novel or his novel about the universities.