Bridge of Sighs is built around the reminiscences of Louis Lynch, 60-year-old, lifelong resident of the upstate New York town of Thomaston. It focuses on his childhood and his high school years, with a bit about the earlier lives of his parents and the events of his sixtieth year. Besides his family the main characters are his best boyhood friend, who eventually becomes a well-known artist, and the girl who becomes his wife.
I found it pleasant to read, mostly, and I made it through all 650 pages. It has some good characters and good material on psychology and family dynamics. The town feels like a real place. It is smoothly written and has some lovely reflective passages, like this one:
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.But oh, the plot. The travesty, the ignominy, the horror of the plot. It makes one question the whole literary world of our time, that such a book could be praised, that anyone could consider it among the ten best of anything.
The main thing is the love triangle involving the narrator (a big doofus with a heart of gold), his friend the intensely-wired, multiply-divorced artist, and the narrator's conflicted wife. The sheer, utter obviousness of this, and the ham-handed way it was set up, made me cringe over and over. It was even worse than the equally obvious, ham-handed love triangle at the heart of the last mainstream novel I assayed, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Gag me. Aren't there any other plots?
And though the set-up is bad, the resolution is even worse: the exciting artist dies of a heart attack chasing after the train on which rides the woman he should have pursued in high school but foolishly left behind on his way to artistic fame. I kid you not. He actually drops dead, clutching at his heart, watching the Best Woman He Ever Knew disappear into the distance toward her happy home and doofus husband.
I decided to write a review of this forgettable book to ask about that basic premise: that high school is the most vibrant part of life, and that what happens then determines all else. Does anybody out there think that is normal, or even common? Sure, who you marry matters, but with age at first marriage creeping up towards 30 it no longer has much to do with what happens when you're 17, if it ever did. Whether you go to college matters, but plenty of people do that years after high school, even decades. Is the world full of people who spend their time remembering high school and regretting the things they did or didn't do, unable to feel the same excitement about the events of their adult years?
It all seems so small to me, so blinkered. Russo focuses so intently on the ties between these dozen or so people in the same small town that he leaves out vast tracts of what people do with their lives and their minds. The narrator's parents were conventional Catholics, but neither they nor anybody else seems to have much faith or to see what happens in terms of God's plan. Nobody cares about science or the Moon landings. Vietnam is just a place local boys went, to die or come back. There is a little about racism, and one troubled gay kid, but otherwise no politics. The sixties never really happen. There is very little art, even though two of the characters are artists, and not even much music. Nobody thinks about history or dreams about the far future. We watch this old factory town fade as the factories shut down, but we see nothing of the new economy, not even a single cell phone.
Stripped of religion, art, science, and politics, life in this little town reduces to a high school contest over who is cool and who dates whom. No wonder adults never change course, but only follow the one laid out in adolescence; in this world there is nothing new, only old friendships, old loves, and old mistakes.
It is utterly foreign to life as I have experienced it. Do all the reviewers who praised it to the skies feel like Russo about high school and adulthood? Or is something else going on that I have missed?