Aug 30, 2009


Thomaston, NY???

Like you, I need for Banjo to shut up about Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. Before I can let it go, however, I’ve got to touch on a couple of subjects that have planted themselves in my mind and won’t let go.

My July 22 review was more positive than this addition might sound, but I don’t think there’s a major inconsistency—I still consider the book a notable achievement. However, the introduction of an important new character toward the end, along with the denouement as a whole, raises a question about Russo’s world view as a whole: is it too cheery to fit the facts of setting, plot and characterization he’s given us in the course of 500 pages?

And at the end of this post, I also want to re-address the novel's portrait women--regarding which, I hope you’ll look at the July 22 visitor’s comment here from istop4books.

(By the way, the comments at istop4books are the only other responses to Bridge of Sighs I’ve read, and I saw those shortly after my July 22 post. All other points here are straight out of Banjo Brain, and any resemblance to other reviews, living or dead, is purely coincidental). Now, onward.

In the novel as a whole, I wonder if anyone else hears echoes of Dickens, as Russo offers a realistic, sociopolitical study of an ensemble cast in an economically struggling town. Like Victorian London, it’s a place significantly influenced by industrial issues and class divisions. These characters in upstate New York might have it a little easier than Dickens’s folks, but life in Thomaston, NY is rough enough; the personal and economic struggles feel legitimate.

However, Russo might love this town and its people too much to allow any genuinely menacing darkness to dominate. He tries to see something bright among the litter and loose ends, the poison and disease, the constant psychological complexities and tensions in human experience. Russo’s bottom line, like Dickens’s, insists upon a positive, sympathetic view of human character, human experience, though predators, bad luck, and character flaws rip at souls. Maybe the label optimism fits Russo’s view.

But have the characters earned any hopefulness we might want to bestow upon them? Is there good reason to think they're bigger, better and brighter than the map of their lives or the landscape of Thomaston's citizens as well as buildings and its river and bridges, or do we simply like these people and thus hope for happy outcomes, whether or not such outcomes are likely? I feel affection and respect for these characters, but I don’t trust the legitimacy of my responses or how I’ve been led to them. It might have been a worthy vehicle, but I'm uneasy about it.

Now enter that new character, late in the story. She has charm, perhaps in excess, but she's also flawed and full of baggage, which portends still more complications for the core characters. Yet that whole episode probably feels rather good about itself, perhaps better than our rational selves could explain, and I wonder if Russo is playing fairly.

Still, even as the book winds down, I would not call it saccharine or simplistic. From beginning to end, the losses and serious complexities and traumas in relationships have made me wince with empathy, and I feel the potential for a more wounded future than these folks deserve.

So what troubles me must be the novel’s somewhat sanguine world view in spite of all that, a view that's been seeping in and tugging at me, or has been forced in while I wasn’t looking. It’s a perspective that’s improbably sunny in Thomaston. So are these just Russo’s and my wishes for people, for our prospects, the possibility that our inklings of better angels and good luck are not naïve or downright stupid?

If the novel’s outlook is as mysterious or ambiguous as I’m suggesting, is it a purposeful ambiguity--which I usually like and respect as a realistic, defensible way of seeing human experience. Does the book make a legitimate and satisfying statement that we cannot pin down the way people’s lives or most single actions should be seen?

Or does it imply something like, "There . . . . Got it. Life is more good than bad, more smiling than sad. That may have been several bridges and quite a few sighs, but it's right that we have a genuine, deservedly good feeling about people--at least these people--as they try to cross." Can we say that? Does the novel say that?

Within the ensemble cast, Big Lou and Lou-Lucy Lynch, would say, “Yes, that’s it.” Sarah would probably go along too. Even that cantankerous Tessa—maybe she’s not such a terminally tough cookie, after all. And those good Thomaston folks wouldn’t lie, even to themselves. Would they?

Tomorrow or soon: the women in Bridge of Sighs

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