Readers of Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richard Russo (EMPIRE FALLS) might do a double take when they see the title of his latest work, BRIDGE OF SIGHS. After all, Russo has earned his acclaim writing about contemporary life in small-town upstate New York. The Bridge of Sighs, located in Venice, Italy, is several thousand miles from his favorite haunts.
Constructed in the 16th century, the Bridge of Sighs crossed the Rio di Palazzo and connected the interrogation rooms of Venetian police with the prisons. In the 19th century Lord Byron gave the bridge its famous name by suggesting that inmates walking across the pathway to imprisonment would sigh as they had their final view of beautiful Venice before being taken to their cells. Legend also suggests that eternal love awaits those who kiss at sunset in a gondola under the bridge.
The title of the novel refers to a painting of the famous bridge crafted by one of the main characters, Bobby Marconi, who is now an accomplished artist residing in Venice. BRIDGE OF SIGHS is the story of Marconi, Louis C. Lynch (whose middle initial creates the unfortunate moniker of Lucy that will follow Lynch throughout his life) and Sarah Berg, who becomes his wife while retaining a long-distance connection with Bobby.
Russo was raised in Gloversville, New York, a town named for the primary product manufactured in the community. His novels often have focused on the post-World War II communities of the northeast that thrived in a booming economy and then began to suffer a slow death as the trades and industries that supported them moved to other locales in the United States and the world. In BRIDGE OF SIGHS, the town portrayed is Thomaston, New York, where a highly successful tannery once provided jobs and livelihoods for the town's residents. But the business came with costs. The tannery poured toxic chemicals into Thomaston's water supply, ultimately bringing disease and death to its residents. When the tannery was forced to close its doors, the resulting economic depression made the once-thriving community a hollowed-out shell of a town.
The story is told primarily through the lives of the Lynch, Berg and Marconi families, with Lynch serving as the primary narrator. Through his eyes we watch his father struggle as technology and big business make obsolescent his job as the community milkman. The family opens a small neighborhood grocery store that will serve as the backdrop and foundation for their lives for nearly one-half century. Through the corner store comes the individuals who populate the pages of BRIDGE OF SIGHS and make it an endearing and poignant story. The events, so expertly chronicled by Russo, cannot help but remind readers of similar experiences and travails in their own lives.
It is ironic that a major theme of BRIDGE OF SIGHS is painting. Bobby Marconi and Sarah Berg are accomplished artists. While Russo works in an altogether different medium, the characters he portrays and the events he depicts are as vivid and beautiful as any great work of art. His heartbreaking narrative of the calamities of life that all of us confront is touching without being maudlin, and his characters are sympathetic and unforgettable. As you reach the end, you want to turn back to the opening pages and start once again. Russo's ability to present individuals with dignity and grace make this a quietly astounding novel that should be on everyone's fall reading list.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 11, 2011
Bridge of Sighs