Two things put Louis Charles Lynch, the narrator of Richard Russoís sprawling Bridge of Sighs, behind the eight ball for much of his sixty years. One is the fact that his name abbreviates to Lou C. (ďLucyĒ) Lynch to make him the continual target of childhood scorn. The second is a harrowing incident, once again in childhood, which finds him locked up in a tree trunk for several hours by his friends in a bullying incident gone too far.
At sixty, as Lynch takes stock of his life by writing his memoirs, he is a plodding fellow, the owner of a chain of convenience stores, the husband of his high school love, Sarah, and the father of Owen, a son who is a mirror image of his father, much to the chagrin of his wife. Russo sets Lynch in Thomaston, a small town in upstate New York, which like Empire Falls in Russoís eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is in the death throes of a decaying economy and is continuously polluted by industrial effluents.
In stark contrast to Lynch and his tenacious desire to hold on to his past, James Noonan, the erstwhile Bobby Marconi of Thomaston, does everything in his control to put distance between his hometown and himself. He is an artist living the dissolute expatriate life in Venice. As Sarah and Lou make plans to make a long-awaited (from Sarahís point-of-view, not Louís) trip to Venice to catch up with their old friend, Louís memoirs bring to center stage simmering memories for Sarah and her feelings for Marconi/Noonan.
Richard Russo is a master at portraying small-town life, particularly among those who are economically disadvantaged. Not surprisingly, then, the better moments in the novel are those set in Thomaston and dealing with the vicissitudes of Louís father and mother as they valiantly try to make a go of their lives after Louís father loses his milk deliveryman job. When Louís father buys Ikey Lubinís Corner Market against the advice of his practical wife, the poignancy is palpable as the family valiantly tries to make a living off it. As in his previous novels, Russo astutely captures small town pettiness and jealousies, as well as the latent racism that comes to full boil in the treatment of Sarahís African American high school date.
It is when Russo ventures out of his comfort zone of small-town America that we see the plot going awry and ringing contrived. In both his description of life among the dissolute in Venice and that among the indigent in a building block in New York City, Russoís grip veers. Noonan does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character. Sarahís detour to the city and her friendship with the child Kayla only take away the tautness of the narrative.
The title refers to Noonanís latest painting and also to the lament, albeit uttered in a muted way, by the characters in the novel. What they do with the lament, though, is what separates Lou from both Sarah and Noonan.
While the novel is long and often meandering in its non-Thomaston parts, it succeeds in its entirety because of its resonant themes of family and friendship, and their inexorable links to contentment.