What I have read (8) Richard Russo

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.

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10 thoughts on “What I have read (8) Richard Russo”

  1. I’ve not read this one, but I admire his work and I loved “Empire Falls.” I don’t see why the owner of a shop in a small town can’t have a desire to write. That seems like snobbery on the part of the New York Times!

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  2. A truly excellent review, Sylvie. I especially like the way you summarize the story itself, without killing further curiosity about it, and give your opinion of how—but especially why—you think it succeeds. I also enjoyed the fact that you mentioned opinions in the Guardian and the New York times. It gave me a chuckle that the New York Times thought the character implausible. My opinion of those New Yorkers is that they haven’t got a clue about people beyond their own noses! Thanks for a great review. I would definitely read this book it I had the time or the inclination, these days, to read novels.

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  3. It’s interesting to read about Bridge of Sighs from your perspective. It disappointed me overall, but the tannery story is fascinating. I like Russo’s grasp of the culture and economy of small towns and how they change and how that change affects the history of the place and its people. Michiko Kakutani doesn’t like much that I like–Ian McEwan and Michael Chabon being a couple exceptions. The Guardian does better reviews in that they are often a bit more informative, so you can decide whether you would like the book or not–even if they don’t.

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    1. I was definitely impressed by the way in which he suggested so much more than the words written on the page. It is, I believe is a great talent. His compassion for his characters is another quality I appreciated (or so not judgemental, would be another way of saying it). I may think differently if it were the second or the third book I was reading from him, but overall it was a very good experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad. It’s always nice when someone likes an author I like–sometimes for very different reasons–but the compassion, especially for characters who might seem easy to dismiss or patronize, is one of the things I like about him. He also creates a world to which I can bring my own knowledge.

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