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Synopsis

Six years after the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo returns with a novel that expands even further his widely heralded achievement.

Louis Charles (“Lucy”) Lynch has spent all his sixty years in upstate Thomaston, New York, married to the same woman, Sarah, for forty of them, their son now a grown man. Like his late, beloved father, Lucy is an optimist, though he’s had plenty of reasons not to be—chief among them his mother, still indomitably alive. Yet it was her shrewdness, combined with that Lynch optimism, that had propelled them years ago to the right side of the tracks and created an “empire” of convenience stores about to be passed on to the next generation.

Lucy and Sarah are also preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy, where his oldest friend, a renowned painter, has exiled himself far from anything they’d known in childhood. In fact, the exact nature of their friendship is one of the many mysteries Lucy hopes to untangle in the “history” he’s writing of his hometown and family. And with his story interspersed with that of Noonan, the native son who’d fled so long ago, the destinies building up around both of them (and Sarah, too) are relentless, constantly surprising, and utterly revealing.

Bridge of Sighs is classic Russo, coursing with small-town rhythms and the claims of family, yet it is brilliantly enlarged by an expatriate whose motivations and experiences—often contrary, sometimes not—prove every bit as mesmerizing as they resonate through these richly different lives. Here is a town, as well as a world, defined by magnificent and nearly devastating contradictions. 

Excerpt

Berman Court

First, the facts.

My name is Louis Charles Lynch. I am sixty years old, and for nearly forty of those years I’ve been a devoted if not terribly exciting husband to the same lovely woman, as well as a doting father to Owen, our son, who is now himself a grown, married man. He and his wife are childless and likely, alas, to so remain. Earlier in my marriage it appeared as if we’d be blessed with a daughter, but a car accident when my wife was in her fourth month caused her to miscarry. That was a long time ago, but Sarah still thinks about the child and so do I.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about my life is that I’ve lived all of it in the same small town in upstate New York, a thing unheard of in this day and age. My wife’s parents moved here when she was a little girl, so she has few memories before Thomaston, and her situation isn’t much different from my own. Some people, upon learning how we’ve lived our lives, are unable to conceal their chagrin on our behalf, that our lives should be so limited, as if experience so geographically circumscribed could be neither rich nor satisfying. When I assure them that it has been both, their smiles suggest we’ve been blessed with self-deception by way of compensation for all we’ve missed. I remind such people that until fairly recently the vast majority of humans have been circumscribed in precisely this manner and that lives can also be constrained by a great many other things: want, illness, ignorance, loneliness and lack of faith, to name just a few. But it’s probably true my wife would have traveled more if she’d married someone else, and my unwillingness to become the vagabond is just one of the ways I’ve been, as I said, an unexciting if loyal and unwavering companion. She’s heard all of my arguments, philosophical and other, for staying put; in her mind they all amount to little more than my natural inclination, inertia rationalized. She may be right. That said, I don’t think Sarah has been unhappy in our marriage. She loves me and our son and, I think, our life. She assured me of this not long ago when it appeared she might lose her own and, sick with worry, I asked if she’d regretted the good simple life we’ve made together.

Though our pace, never breakneck, has slowed recently, I like to think that the real reason we’ve not seen more of the world is that Thomaston itself has always been both luxuriant and demanding. In addition to the corner store we inherited from my parents, we now own and operate two other convenience stores. My son wryly refers to these as “the Lynch Empire,” and while the demands of running them are not overwhelming, they are relentless and time-consuming. Each is like a pet that refuses to be housebroken and resents being left alone. In addition to these demands on my time, I also serve on a great many committees, so many, in fact, that late in life I’ve acquired a nickname, Mr. Mayor—a tribute to my civic-mindedness that contains, I’m well aware, an element of gentle derision. Sarah believes that people take advantage of my good nature, my willingness to listen carefully to everyone, even after it’s become clear they have nothing to say. She worries that I often return home late in the evening and then not in the best of humors, a natural result of the fact that the civic pie we divide grows smaller each year, even as our community’s needs continue dutifully to grow. Every year the arguments over how we spend our diminished and diminishing assets become less civil, less respectful, and my wife believes it’s high time for younger men to shoulder their fair share of the responsibility, not to mention the attendant abuse. In principle I heartily agree, though in practice I no sooner resign from one committee than I’m persuaded to join another. And Sarah’s no one to talk, serving as she has, until her recent illness, on far too many boards and development committees.

Be all that as it may, the well-established rhythms of our adult lives will soon be interrupted most violently, for despite my inclination to stay put, we are soon to travel, my wife and I. I have but one month to prepare for this momentous change and mentally adjust to the loss of my precious routines—my rounds, I call them—that take me into every part of town on an almost daily basis. Too little time, I maintain, for a man so set in his ways, but I have agreed to all of it. I’ve had my passport photo taken, filled out my application at the post office and mailed all the necessary documents to the State Department, all under the watchful eye of my wife and son, who seem to believe that my lifelong aversion to travel might actually cause me to sabotage our plans. Owen in particular sustains this unkind view of his father, as if I’d deny his mother anything, after all she’s been through. “Watch him, Ma,” he advises, narrowing his eyes at me in what I hope is mock suspicion. “You know how he is.”

Italy. We will go to Italy. Rome, then Florence, and finally Venice.

No sooner did I agree than we were marooned in a sea of guidebooks that my wife now studies like a madwoman. “Aqua alta,” she said last night after she’d finally turned off the light, her voice near and intimate in the dark. She found my hand and gave it a squeeze under the covers. “In Venice there’s something called aqua alta. High water.”

“How high?” I said.

“The calles flood.”

“What’s a calle?”

“If you’d do some reading, you’d know that streets in Italy are called calles.”

“How many of us need to know that?” I asked her. “You’re going to be there, right? I’m not going alone, am I?”

“When the aqua alta is bad, all of St. Mark’s is underwater.”

“The whole church?” I said. “How tall is it?”

She sighed loudly. “St. Mark’s isn’t a church. It’s a plaza. The plaza of San Marco. Do you need me to explain what a plaza is?”

Actually, I’d known that calles were streets and hadn’t really needed an explanation of aqua alta either. But my militant ignorance on the subject of all things Italian has quickly become a game between us, one we both enjoy.

“We may need boots,” my wife ventured.

“We have boots.”

“Rubber boots. Aqua alta boots. They sound a siren.”

“If you don’t have the right boots, they sound a siren?”

She gave me a swift kick under the covers. “To warn you. That the high water’s coming. So you’ll wear your boots.”

“Who lives like this?”

“Venetians.”

“Maybe I’ll just sit in the car and wait for the water to recede.”

Another kick. “No cars.”

“Right. No cars.”

“Lou?”

“No cars,” I repeated. “Got it. Calles where the streets should be. No cars in the calles, though, not one.”

“We haven’t heard back from Bobby.”

Our old friend. Our third musketeer from senior year of high school. Long, long gone from us. She didn’t have to tell me we hadn’t heard back. “Maybe he’s moved. Maybe he doesn’t live in Venice anymore.”

“Maybe he’d rather not see us.”

“Why? Why would he not want to see us?”

I could feel my wife shrug in the dark, and feel our sense of play running aground. “How’s your story coming?”

“Good,” I told her. “I’ve been born already. A chronological approach is best, don’t you think?”

“I thought you were writing a history of Thomaston,” she said.

“Thomaston’s in it, but so am I.”

“How about me?” she said, taking my hand again.

“Not yet. I’m still just a baby. You’re still downstate. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“You could lie. You could say I lived next door. That way we’d always be together.” Playful again, now.

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “But the people who actually lived next door are the problem. I’d have to evict them.”

“I wouldn’t want you to do that.”

“It is tempting to lie, though,” I admitted.

“About what?” She yawned, and I knew she’d be asleep and snoring peacefully in another minute or two.

“Everything.”

“Lou?”

“What.”

“Promise me you won’t let it become an obsession.”

It’s true. I’m prone to obsession. “It won’t be,” I promised her.

But I’m not the only reason my wife is on guard against obsession. Her father, who taught English at the high school, spent his summers writing a novel that by the end had swollen to more than a thousand single-spaced pages and still with no end in sight. I myself am drawn to shorter narratives. Of late, obituaries. It troubles my wife that I read them with my morning coffee, going directly to that section of the newspaper, but turning sixty does that, does it not? Death isn’t an obsession, just a reality. Last month I read of the death—in yet another car accident—of a man whose life had been intertwined with mine since we were boys. I slipped it into the envelope that contained my wife’s letter, the one that announced our forthcoming travels, to our old friend Bobby, who will remember him well. Obituaries, I believe, are really less about death than the odd shapes life takes, the patterns that death allows us to see. At sixty, these patterns are important.

“I’m thinking fifty pages should do it. A hundred, tops. And I’ve already got a title: The Dullest Story Ever Told.”

When she had no response to this, I glanced over and saw that her breathing had become regular, that her eyes were closed, lids fluttering.

It’s possible, of course, that Bobby might prefer not to see us, his oldest friends. Not everyone, Sarah reminds me, values the past as I do. Dwells on it, she no doubt means. Loves it. Is troubled by it. Alludes to it in conversation without appropriate transition. Had I finished my university degree, as my mother desperately wanted me to, it would have been in history, and that might have afforded me ample justification for this inclination to gaze backward. But Bobby—having fled our town, state and nation at eighteen—may have little desire to stroll down memory lane. After living all over Europe, he might well have all but forgotten those he fled. I can joke about mine being “the dullest story ever told,” but to a man like Bobby it probably isn’t so very far from the truth. I could go back over my correspondence with him, though I think I know what I’d find in it—polite acknowledgment of whatever I’ve sent him, news that someone we’d both known as boys has married, or divorced, or been arrested, or diagnosed, or died. But little beyond acknowledgment. His responses to my newsy letters will contain no requests for further information, no Do you ever hear from so-and-so anymore? Still, I’m confident Bobby would be happy to see us, that my wife and I haven’t become inconsequential to him.

Why not admit it? Of late, he has been much on my mind.


From the Hardcover edition.
Richard Russo

About Richard Russo

Richard Russo - Bridge of Sighs

Photo © Elena Seibert

Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.

 
Praise

Praise

"A magnificent, bighearted new novel [and] an astounding achievement. . . . A masterpiece." —The Boston Globe"A story of constantly evolving complexity and depth. . . . [Bridge of Sighs is] Russo's most intricate, multifaceted novel . . . enormous and enormously moving."—The Washington Post Book World"A novel of great warmth, charm and intimacy . . . richly evocative and beautifully wrought."—The New York Times"[Russo's] most ambitious and best work."—USA Today
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A magnificent, bighearted new novel [and] an astounding achievement. . . . A masterpiece.”
The Boston Globe

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Bridge of Sighs, a rich, multilayered novel by Richard Russo, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls.

About the Guide

Louis Charles “Lucy” Lynch has spent his whole life in Thomaston, a small town in upstate New York. He’s married to Sarah, the girl he fell in love with in high school, owns and operates three convenience stores, including the corner grocery he inherited from his parents, and is perfectly content with his well-established routines and the familiar rhythms of Thomaston. At the age of sixty, as he and Sarah plan their first-ever trip away from home, he looks back on his life, weaving memories into a history of his family and his town. He writes about his outgoing father, who believed fully in the American Dream and loved him unconditionally, and about his critical but caring mother, whose realistic view of life provided the necessary balance to his father’s naïveté and idealism. His descriptions of his childhood—first in the poorest section of Thomaston and later in the lower middle-class neighborhood where his father buys a modest home and a failing store—capture the small humiliations (like the acquisition of the nickname “Lucy”) and larger terrors of a lonely boy bullied by neighborhood toughs.

As Lucy reminisces, his thoughts inevitably turn to Bobby Marconi. Bobby is Lucy’s oldest friend; in high school, Sarah, Lucy, and Bobby hung out together at the Lynch’s store, an almost inseparable threesome. But Bobby had troubles that no amount of friendship could solve, and at eighteen he fled Thomaston forever. He’s changed his name to Robert Noonan and is now a world–renowned artist living in Venice. After years of sending newsy letters to him and receiving only minimal acknowledgment, Sarah and Lucy are planning to visit him on their trip. For all three, there are not only ties to rebind, but also questions to resolve.

About the Author

Richard Russo is the author of Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Nobody’s Fool, and Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and a collection of stories, The Whore’s Child. He and his wife live in coastal Maine.

Richard Russo is available for lectures and readings. For more information regarding his availability, please visit www.knopfspeakersbureau.com or call 212-572-2013.

Discussion Guides

1. Bridge of Sighs alternates two narratives: Lucy’s first-person memoir and the story of Robert Noonan. What are the advantages of this structure? How does it affect the way the plot unfolds? Does it influence your impressions of the main characters?

2. How does Lucy’s description of Thomaston create an immediate sense of time and place [pp. 10–13]? What details did you find particularly evocative? What does Lucy’s tone, as well as the way he presents various facts about Thomaston and its history, reveal about his perceptiveness and his intelligence?

3. Lucy says, “I’ve always known that there’s more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn’t regret that he isn’t more fully understood?” [p. 14]. To what extent does this feeling lie at the heart of his decision to write his book? Does it play a central role in memoir-writing in general? What else does Lucy hope to accomplish by recalling his past?

4. The horrific prank the neighborhood boys play on Lucy triggers the first of many “spells” he will have throughout his life [pp. 25–36]. What is the significance of his spells? What do they reveal about the emotional attachments, anxieties, and doubts that define him both as a child and as an adult?

5. Lucy makes many references to the pursuit of the American Dream and its implications within his own family and in society in general [pp. 62–66, 93–94, 110–111, for example]. In what ways did American attitudes in the postwar years embody both the best parts of our national character and its darker undercurrents? What incidents in the novel illuminate the uneasiness and enmity that results from the class, racial, and economic divisions in Thomaston? Do Lucy’s beliefs, judgments, and achievements (as a businessman and as a happily married husband and father) color his reconstruction of these events?

6. Unlike Lucy’s story, Noonan’s story is told in the third person. Is the change of voice a literary device, a way of adding variety to the novel, or does it serve another purpose? In what ways does it help to convey the basic difference between Lucy and Noonan and the way they see themselves and their place in the world? Compare the tone and language Russo uses in creating Lucy’s voice with the style he uses in his portraits of Noonan. What aspects of Noonan’s character and personality come to life in his conversations with his art dealer and his mistress [pp. 41–61]; his reactions to Lucy’s missives [pp. 158–162] and to Mr. Berg’s class in high school [pp. 375–380]; and, ultimately, his thoughts and behavior on arriving in New York [pp. 608–618]?

7. Lucy and Bobby [pp. 156–157 and pp. 170–171, respectively] attempt to explain why their lives—and Sarah’s—have turned out the way they have. Do you agree with Lucy that “to see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy”? To what extent does Bobby share this view? Why does Bobby see himself as being in control of his life in a way that neither Sarah nor Lucy is? Is this a result of his background and the circumstances that forced him to prepare himself for a second act?

8. Tessa is the practical, steady member of the Lynch family. In what ways does her behavior reflect her own choices, needs, and desires, and in what ways are these determined by the time and place in which she lives? What qualities make her stand out, not only in Lucy’s eyes, but also within the community as a whole?

9. Does Lucy’s identification with his father distort his image of his mother and his understanding of her strengths and her weaknesses? Beyond her immediate anger, what drives her to tell Lucy, “I never wanted you to not love your father. . . . I wanted you to love me. . . . Did it ever occur to you, even once during all those years, that you might have taken my side? That I might have needed a friend?” [p. 263]? Is this a valid criticism, or is Tessa herself responsible, either inadvertently or intentionally, for the differences between Lucy’s relationships with each parent?

10. Sarah comes from an unconventional family, especially in the context of Thomaston. Is her ability to deal with the eccentricities of her parents and the summer/winter living arrangements they established unusual? In what ways does she not only adapt to but also benefit from the very things that set her apart? Is her attraction to the Lynches in part a reaction to her dysfunctional family?

11. Are Mr. Berg’s obsessions—with perpetuating his image as a rebel, with the “great” book he is writing, and with his failed marriage—sympathetically drawn? What is the significance of the fact that he is Jewish? What biases, both good and bad, do the people of Thomaston (including Lucy) have about Jews and what impact does this have on Berg and his reputation within the community?

12. What role does her mother play in Sarah’s sense of self? What are the implications of her views on marriage [pp. 394–395]? Do they influence Sarah’s feelings about her own marriage and that of her in-laws? Why is Sarah drawn back to the home she shared with her mother when she faces a crisis in her relationship with Lucy [pp. 564–607]? What does she learn by revisiting the past?

13. What traits do Tessa and Sarah share? In what ways do their marriages mirror one another? Do you think either—or both—foolishly gave up their own dreams and desires, sacrificing a life of adventure and sexual passion for the love and security of a “good” man? Behind their apparent contentment, are there indications that they regret the choices they made?

14. The Bridge of Sighs in Venice connects the Doge’s Palace to an adjacent prison, and, as Lucy relates, “Crossing this bridge, the convicts—at least the ones without money or influence—came to understand that all hope was lost” [p. 387]. How does the historical function of the bridge, as well as the myths surrounding it, relate to characters’ lives? Why has Russo chosen it as the title of the novel?

15. Richard Russo has written about small towns throughout his career. What are some similarities between Bridge of Sighs and previous novels like Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool? In what ways does Bridge of Sighs enhance and expand the portrait of America that is so central to Russo’s writing?

Suggested Readings

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter; Robert Bausch, A Hole in the Earth; Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love; Leif Enger, Peace Like a River; Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land; Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections; Alice McDermott, After This; Susan Minot, Evening; Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres; Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
  • August 12, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400030903

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