Setting

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

Like most of Russo’s fiction, Bridge of Sighs is set in a small New England town, this one called Thomaston. Thomaston, in the early stages of this story, is home to a tannery. Thomaston was a factory town, dependent on the large factory to provide them with jobs. The residents...

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Like most of Russo’s fiction, Bridge of Sighs is set in a small New England town, this one called Thomaston. Thomaston, in the early stages of this story, is home to a tannery. Thomaston was a factory town, dependent on the large factory to provide them with jobs. The residents refer to the local waterway that runs through their town as a “rainbow river” because colors from the factory paint their river with dyes. No thought was given to the underlying threats of toxic chemicals and the resultant health problems until the townspeople begin to develop unusually high incidences of cancer. When investigative health officials publish their studies’ results, the findings are grim: the town’s water and soil polluted; residents soon learn that the factory is shutting down. Homes go quickly on sale, but buyers are hard to find. No one wants to move into a dying town.

Other economic pressures in this town are represented by the changing times, which is somewhere around the early 1950s. Lucy Lynch is a young boy. Lucy’s father, called Big Lou, is a milkman, delivering milk in glass bottles to the doorsteps of customers around Thomaston. But when a large grocery store opens in town, Big Lou is soon out of a job. Many mom-and-pop markets around town are also forced to close shop.

Thomaston begins to deteriorate. Long-time residents begin moving out en masse. Would-be new residents, learning about the pollution and the lack of financial opportunity, do not replace them. Russo’s story focuses, for the most part, on what happens to the people who choose to stay in the dying town.

Another aspect of the setting is the town’s rather strict division along class lines. Class is defined in this situation largely by economics, with some reflection on race and ethnicity. Education, and the lack of it, plays a minor role. What is called “Thomaston’s West End” is the rough side of town and also the most polluted. The people who live here are those down on their luck and those permanently incapable of finding decent jobs. A lot of the troubled kids tend to come from the West End. The East End of Thomaston is for people who have a chance, but are not quite there yet. They have better jobs and are upwardly mobile. This includes young married couples who will probably one day move out of the East End neighborhoods and find better housing elsewhere. Then there is the Borough. Here are Thomaston’s biggest houses and richest residents. Lucy Lynch, the narrator, lives in the West End as a child, but moves up the socioeconomic ladder until he finds a home in the Borough as a mature adult.

Bridge of Sighs is not set solely in Thomaston. Part of this story unfolds in Venice, Italy. It is here that Bobby Noonan, a school friend of Lucy’s, goes to get away from his family and Thomaston. By the time he arrives in Venice, Noonan is a successful artist. Venice is also home to the bridge that has been named the "Bridge of Sighs", from which the title is taken. The bridge, built in 1600, is a covered crossing from one building to another. On one side, the building housed prisoners hundreds of years ago. On the other side of the bridge was the place where the prisoners met their fate. In the nineteenth century, the poet Lord Bryon imagined that as prisoners cross from one building to the other, they could look out at the city for the last time before meeting their fate. And, thus, the prisoners let out their last sighs. Noonan, while in Venice, also paints a portrait of his father that he refers to as “Bridge of Sighs.”

Another part of the novel takes place in Long Island, New York where, for a short time, the story follows Sarah Berg as she spends the summer with her mother. Sarah’s parents are separated, and Sarah enjoys visiting her mother but also knows that she can make more money babysitting for the rich families that live on Long Island than for the poorer families in her hometown of Thomaston. Toward the end of the story, Sarah returns to Long Island in search of something that is missing in her life.

Bridge of Sighs

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817

Beginning with his novels Mohawk (1986) and The Risk Pool (1988), Richard Russo has ever been interested in chronicling the lives of quiet desperation and small triumphs that make up small blue-collar towns in upper New York state; Bridge of Sighs follows in the footsteps of such novels as Nobody’s Fool (1993) and Empire Falls (2001) in chronicling the complex lives of working-class characters and their dreams and ambitions. The protagonist for much of the novel, Lou C. “Lucy” Lynch, is the owner of a few convenience stores and a small apartment building in the small town of Thomaston, where his father had once been a milkman and then became the owner of a small grocery store, Ikey Lubin’s, which Lou has inherited. The majority of the novel is narrated by Lou; in his sixtieth year, he has begun a memoir about his youth, even as he and his wife Sarah prepare to visit their school friend Bobby Marconi, now the renowned painter Robert Noonan, in his home city of Venice. Both Bobby and Sarah serve as centers of other sections of the novel; although Lou is at the center of the book, Bridge of Sighs tells the story of all three of them.

Initially the novel alternates between long sections about Lou’s childhood with Bobby and shorter sections about the adult Robert Noonan’s painting career in Venice; later the novel focuses on the trio’s senior year in high school. In Lou’s narrative, readers meet his father, who is also named Lou (and called alternately either Lou-Lou or Big Lou), a convivial, optimistic, genuinely kind man, incapable of sensing the dark side of humanity. Lou’s mother, on the other hand, is cynical, shrewd, and intelligent, and the driving ambition in their lives: “To her,” Lou writes, “a sunny day was a rarity. Tomorrow it would rain, and the only question was how hard.”

Nicknamed Lucy as a boy, Lou is affable like his father, if smarter and quieter, and is often the target of bullies. His friendship with Bobby Marconi largely occurs because the two are neighbors, but there is another side to it: Bobby is unafraid of bullies and fully willing to fight. In a sense, he serves the passive Lou as a courageous and angry extension of Lou’s secret self. Lou’s fascination with Bobby at times approaches adoration, perhaps in part because at some level young Lou wishes to be Bobby. Bobby, on the other hand, is the oldest son of a troubled family; his continually pregnant mother tries again and again to leave Bobby’s dark, violent father, who again and again returns her to their home, throwing away her suitcase.

Lou’s torment at the hands of bullies reaches its peak in his preadolescence when they take him to an old shed by a river, close him up in a trunk, and pretend that they are going to saw the trunk in half. Lou suffers a kind of spell; he loses control of where and when he is, only emerging from his stupor many hours later at the sounds of a man and woman having a liaison in the shed. He walks back home in the dark to find his father waiting for him at 2 a.m. on the small footbridge that traverses the river and to discover that half the police in the municipality were looking for him. The title Bridge of Sighs refers not only to the famous bridge over the Rio di Palazzo in Venice but also this small bridge where Lou must confront his tormentors daily and where his father stands vigil for him. In a sense, the bridge, and Lou’s experience in the trunk, signify the loss of his childhood; he is called to leave behind innocence and perhaps even goodness in order to cross the bridge into adulthood with its corruptions.

The “spells,” as they are called in the novel, will haunt Lou for the rest of his life. They will in some ways cause people to underrate Lou throughout much of his youth. Furthermore, Lou and Bobby have crossed other bridges: Bobby moves to a different part of town, and after getting in a fight that soon becomes legendary, is sent off to a military academy by his father. Lou is left alone to sort out his feelings about hard-luck cases like Karen Cirillo, whose mother rents the apartment above their store. Karen’s boyfriend is Bobby’s enemy Jerzey Quinn, and Lou is bewildered at the attention she shows him. His eventual realization that she is simply using him for cigarettes filched from his parents’ store serves as another educational experience for Lou, a crash course in the coming compromises and disappointments of adulthood. Lou explains this transition, saying: “In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be.”

Things change for both boys when Lou meets Sarah Berg, the daughter of an alcoholic artist mother and a brilliant and addicted father who is both an exceptional (if unorthodox) teacher and an aspiring novelist. A gifted artist herself, Sarah quickly becomes an important member of the extended Lynch family; the optimism of Lou and his father (even when tempered by the cynicism of Lou’s uncle, Dec, and his mother Tessa’s pragmatism) counterbalance the disillusionment she feels about her own parents’ separation and their attempts to manipulate each other through her. When Bobby returns from his years at a military academy to spend his senior year of high school in Thomaston, he is surprised to find that Lou has a girlfriend; moreover, he is startled to find that, despite her plain looks, Sarah’s wit and insight attract him. Bobby initially does not intend to renew his relationship with Lou, but between the care shown him by the entire Lynch family and his developing feelings for Sarah, he instead spends most of his free time with them at Ikey Lubin’s. The triangle formed by the three of them is further complicated when Lou and Bobby are recruited to the Honors English course taught by Sarah’s father, despite the fact that neither seems to have the test grades or the scores to attend the class. Berg runs a demanding class, favoring Socratic challenges levied against every assumption the seventeen-year-old students make.

Even as the two friends realize how much they have both grown and changed, they form a new relationship with Sarah as the centerpiece. Bobby soon takes up with the attractive and rich Nan Beverly, recognizing that Nan is a distraction to keep him diverted from Sarah. At the same time that his friendship with Lou is being compromised by his growing interest in Sarah, however, Bobby and his father begin to make peace; Bobby comes to realize that, although he and his father may never become close, he may benefit from understanding his father’s perspective.

In fact, parental relationships serve as reoccurring nexus points in the novel. On the one hand, Lou adores his father while understanding that his father’s cheery kindness is perhaps blind to reality; he loves his mother yet resents her need to present the more realistic if sordid side of life. Sarah, however, leaves her father behind in summers to live with her mother in New York and is confronted by both her mother’s alcoholism and her strings of lovers; returning to Thomaston, she finds at each summer’s end that her father has made himself over into the cliché of a serious novelist who has no time for anything save his novel. Her father is addicted to heroin (although Sarah is largely ignorant of his addiction) and is sure that he is too smart and gifted to teach in the small town of Thomaston; also, he deludes himself into thinking it is only a matter of time before her mother returns to him. For his part, Bobby has always defended his mother from his emotionally abusive father, and he has told his father that he will kill him if he endangers his mother’s life by getting her pregnant again. Now that Bobby is no longer physically frightened of his father, though, their relationship has shifted. He comes to realize that perhaps his father is not to blame for all their family’s problems.

Nevertheless, as winter settles over Thomaston, things heat up for Lou, Bobby, and Sarah. As a blizzard descends upon the town, Nan Beverly strikes a blow at her divorcing parents by sleeping with Bobby. Bobby acquiesces to her plans, knowing the whole time that he is taking advantage of her and in some ways betraying his feelings for Sarah. It is soon after that Bobby finds that his father, despite his promises not to jeopardize his wife’s life again, has impregnated her. Bobby does his best to make good on his promise to kill his father. In doing so, he knows that in some ways he has become exactly like his father and that in his actions he is outlining the kind of man he will become: “He was too honest to tell himself he was doing this for his mother, who didn’t want it any more than she wanted another pregnancy. He was simply doing it because he said he would, and so his father, who could never quite bring himself to throw that punch he was forever threatening, would understand, once and for all, that his son was a different sort of man entirely.” At the same time, he believes that if Sarah had “chosen him, it might have been different, but she hadn’t. And now the time had come to show her just how wise she’d been.” In the aftermath that follows, Bobby will leave Thomaston forever, taking his mother’s name of Noonan. Eventually he will turn to painting, spurred on by Sarah’s great talents, and someday achieve great success.

The novel, ultimately, is about the paths that lives take, and about loyalties and small betrayals; in different ways, each of the three primary characters betray their friends and themselves. The story of Sarah’s return to her mother’s old apartment serves as a coda to help close the novel. In laying to rest the ghosts of her pastas Lou has through writing his story and Bobby has through painting his father and SarahSarah learns how to move into the future. She and Lou plan to adopt an orphan, Kayla, and further cement the foundations of family that have held them together since they were young. Bobby Marconi/Robert Noonan’s great blunder is his failure to realize how much he, too, needs a foundation.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 246

Charles, Ron. 2007. “The Optimist’s Son." Washington Post, September 30, p. T7. Charles provides a positive review of Russo’s novel, which he says is all about optimism.

Hallet, Alison. 2007. “Review of Bridge of Sighs.” Portland Mercury, Vol. 8, No. 21, p. 56. Hallet finds Russo’s writing to be very compassionate.

Holt, Karen. 2007. “Writing What He Knows.” Publishers Weekly, Vol. 254, No. 34, p. 43. Partially a view of Russo’s life and partially a positive review of the book.

Maslin, Janet. 2007. “Coming of Age Upstate: To Grow but Not Change?” The New York Times, September 24, p. E1.

Metcalf, Stephen. 2007. “Town Without Pity.” The New York Times Book Review, November 4, p. 24. Metcalf finds beauty in Russo’s ability to write an interesting story about a man who never leaves town.

National Public Radio. 2008. “Richard Russo’s Small-Town America.” Retrieved January 30, 2008, from <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14806290>. Here you will find both an audio and a written interview with Russo as well as an excerpt from his Bridge of Sighs. There are links to another interview with the author, presented through the program Fresh Air.

Reynolds, Susan Salter. 2007. “Tapestry of Secrets.” Los Angeles Times, September 30, p. R3. Salter both interviews Russo and discusses his novel at length.

Wilkinson, Joanne. 2007. “Review of Bridge of Sighs.” Booklist, Vol. 101, No. 1, p. 5. This is the novel, Wilkinson declares, that “Russo was born to write.”

Zipp, Yvonne. 2007. “Bridge of Sighs Stretches From Thomaston, N.Y., to Venice.” Christian Science Monitor, October 2, p. 13.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32

The New York Times 157 (September 24, 2007): B1-B6.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (November 4, 2007): 24.

The New Yorker 83, no. 31 (October 15, 2007): 100-101.

People 68, no. 15 (October 8, 2007): 54.

The Spectator 305 (September 22, 2007): 62.

The Washington Post, September 30, 2007, p. BW07.

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