Friday, October 10, 2008

Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

The bridge of sighs is a bridge in Venice that prisoners cross to get to the prison. The name came from the suggestion that a prisoner would sigh when looking through the windows in the covered bridge, knowing it was their last look at the city before being taken to their cells.

Louis C. Lynch crossed his own bridge of sighs as a young boy, and from then on one might surmise that he was in a sense imprisoned. It was, for him, a comfortable prison, the town of Thomaston, where he was loved by his parents (and adored his father), where he knew the rules and tried to do the right thing. In his 60th year, Louis takes a look back by writing his story.

Louis's reminiscences are supplemented by third-person chapters on friends and family, chapters that suggest that they find him big in stature and in his heart, unwilling to take risks, with a tendency to look back nostalgically even on times that were far from wonderful. We sense a kind of frustration as well as deep affection for him, a sense that he will never really "get it".

Chief among the other characters are Bobby Marconi and his father, who were the Lynch's neighbors part of the time, Sarah Berg and her father, both of whom play large roles in Louis' life, and Gabriel Mock III and his father. The story is as much about fathers as it is about Louis.

Growing up in Thomaston, a small town in upstate New York that is provincial and blue-collar and economically stressed, Louis is a quiet, awkward child in the 1950s, who is a natural victim for rougher children. The first indication that he does not control his life comes when in kindergarten he is given the nickname "Lucy" (from Lou C.) and the name sticks, even when he changes schools. He finds protection in a neighbor, Bobby Marconi, who seems fearless and whose presence alone protects Lou from harm. Bobby and Lou form a friendship that is more on Lou's side than Bobby's, yet over the years Bobby develops an attraction to the Lynch family as a whole.

Lou resembles his father, an optimistic, kindhearted rather simple man, and he resents his mother, who seems too negative. Louis is unadventurous, happy to stay where he is and who he is but he admires the courage of Bobby and later Lou's girlfriend Sarah.

Louis's childhood was defined in large part by an incident when Louis was not under Bobby's protection and was forced across a railroad trestle and into a crate by other boys, threatened with being cut in half, and finally left for hours. The incident left Louis with an odd kind of disability - times when he would fade out, would become still and enter some other land, sometimes just for a few minutes, other times for hours.

I shared some of the feelings that Louis' mother and friends have about Louis. At times I wanted more. I wanted him to have epiphanies, to wake up from his dreamlike state and see the possibilities. I wanted him to love others with more of a passion and less of a simple acceptance and gratefulness. A protagonist of this sort can be a challenge. A large part of that challenge is our wish to see the character embraced wholeheartedly by others. Yet perhaps these challenges are the point of the book. There are many characters in the book who do not, in one way or another, "fit in". Louis stands for all of them. He senses the "otherness" in these others even while he may not consciously note it. He is susceptible to bigotry and prejudice just as they are.

When Louis is faced with discrimination, even against himself, he tends to walk around it when possible. He makes a case for his own differences in his narrative, however, that reveals a frustration that he is not seen for who he really is. But who is he really? Will he finally break out of his comfortable and comforting mold?


Wendy said...

Great review of this one, Judith. I really liked the book when I read it earlier this is one of those thought-provoking, comfortable reads. I agree that Lucy's character can be a frustrating one at times...but in the end, I felt like I knew who he was.

Judith said...

Thanks, Wendy. It's nice that you read so many of these reviews and comment on them. I think many of us are so furiously reading and writing that we don't stop to look at what others are doing.