Jul 22, 2009

Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs

Has anyone out there read Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs? What did you think? I’d be especially glad to hear women readers responding to Russo’s female characters, who strike me as fascinatingly complex and individual, yet fulfilling certain archetypes of womanhood. I think he keeps them constantly above the level of stereotype, but I wonder what the other gender would say.

As usual for long novels that I finish (in this case, I have about 100 pages to go, so don’t tell the ending), the architecture of the main plot and its subplots and the interplay among its main and minor characters create a structure that gives me the shivers. I cannot imagine anyone’s planning and then accomplishing this. Applause, applause.

For what it’s worth, in terms of plot(s) and main characters, I’ve come to think of the whole as a river with dozens of tributaries, or a freeway with many entrance ramps. So it's astonishing that any mere human can make sense of so many factors, the wiggles of each stream. Not one of Russo's events or characters takes an unrealistic turn, yet very little in plot and characterization is predictable.

I’m pretty sure I see sentences better than I see chapters, trees better than forests, and I must add this: Shame on Mr. Russo and his editors for not taking better care of his syntax or otherwise clunky sentences that pop up too often. Is this what the computer age has brought us? Speed reading over careful editing? Deadlines over details? And I don’t mean typos; I mean phrasing, diction rising above cliché, and deletion of unnecessary words and phrases that over-explain.

But I cannot, would not, quit reading Bridge of Sighs, with its complex characters, almost every one sympathetic in one way or another, as are their relationships. I’m impressed by Russo’s avoidance of simplistic solutions to complex moral, sociopolitical, and psychological issues. I care about every character and what will, or has, become of them.

I guess this is the bottom line: I rarely, rarely, finish a book this long, but these people have become part of my life, as do the characters in other compellingly realistic novels. I will miss the folks in this irrelevant, yet essential upstate New York town fed by its contaminated river.


Jeff M said...

Yes, I've read Bridge of Sighs. And, yes, I found that I couldn't put it down --- in spite of the fact that it felt as if Russo was trying to recapture what he did in the novel Empire Falls, which is by far his best book. Bridge of Sighs is good, yes, but I felt a bit exhausted by the end.

Some recommendations from me: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, the latter being profoundly powerful in a number of ways.

Banjo52 said...

Thanks, Jeff. I know what you mean by "exhaustion by the end." I'm impatient for the closure, but I don't much want these characters out of my life, and I don't think re-reading is a complete solution.

I don't know the Strout, but I'll try to check on it. I agree with you about the Dillard, though I liked even better her essays--or meditations?--on nature in Teaching a Stone to Talk. They might be pretentious, but I found them crazy-interesting.

How do we know when to trust somebody who's claiming any kind of mysticism or transcendentalism? Good topic for discussion?

Thanks, Jeff.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that funny? I was ready to disagree, and I haven't even read the book. But any writing about "women" makes me contrary.

But for the sake of argument, I'll read it (or part of it). Hmmm, and Kundera?

Banjo52 said...

AH, the Kundera is in hand! After a few pages, it looks as if Nietzsche and eros will be holding
hands . . . well, better that than golf.

As a subject, Russo's women interest me because it's been said that American male writers cannot "do" women: they become either saints or whores. I think Russo answers the challenge, but as a male, what do I know?

istop4books.wordpress.com said...


Author: istop4books
Thanks Banjo52 for your comment.

I guess when I read a book, inevitably I start the comparisons with other similar writers that I have enjoyed or disliked along the way. The two writers who came to mind while reading this book were Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow or The Memory of Old Jack) and Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, etc. ) and as I read through the book I continually found it didn't measure up to these two favorite authors of mine. I kept feeling like I would rather be reading one of their books instead of Bridge of Sighs.

As far as the women in the novel are concerned, when we got together to discuss the book, 4 out of 12 of us had read it - not bad for this particular group of busy women. In general, the female characters were found to be a weak link in the book. The mothers (Noonan's and Lucy's) - one was a total victim, one overbearing. Sarah perhaps was the redeeming woman in the novel, but even her interest in Noonan years and years after last seeing him was a bit of a stretch.

And here's my deal with long books. They'd better be darn good to take up that much of my attention span and sleep time, because most of my reading time is stolen blatantly from sleep hours. I read to learn, to be entertained, to be moved - for lots of reasons. In this age when so many other things are competing for our time, kids, spouses, business, housework, TV, internet, blogs.... a book absolutely unequivocably has to merit my time. IMHO, this one fell short.

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Banjo52 said...

Thanks for the response, istop4. I'm surprised there weren't more comments about the women characters in Bridge of Sighs.

I think I see Tessa in a more positive light than you do, and I agree with you about Sarah--not a saint, but maybe the strongest character in the book.


I finished the book last night. I woke up this morning KNOWING for the first time in my 68 years that I've lived my life missinf no "Road not taken" have made my life better. Thats quite a gift from a novel. My kiss was at age 24 was from a beautiful, intellegent, feminine broken achoholic who couldn't love me or anyone. I knew that then and I knowm it now. However, when I project into Bobby of Sarah I have doubts. If I'm Bobby I run for the train.If I'm Sarah Inever become completely ok with what would it have been like if Bobby had been home when she waited for him to comfort her after her mothers death. I wonder if Russo was old enough to not be hoping she was truly at peace with that conflict. Earlier he had metioned the Greek "deus ex machina." I wonder if he might end it different now. My new wife is now reading it. I asked her to no be to proprietorial towards it; to share the deeper insights she has as she reads it so we can talk about relationship. I think the book is a good Rosarch test for plumbing our hearts about relationship and regret.

Banjo52 said...

Ole Wise One, if I were Richard Russo, I'd feel honored to read that my work had had such an effect on someone. I agree that it offers some important but troubling ideas about relationships. Most of us have probably been where Lou is (for those who haven't read it, Lou is nicknamed Lucy)--regarding his wife. But did we allow ourselves to know it? If so, how did our response compare to his? And Sarah's, for that matter as the person in the middle?

There were times when I thought the book was about as good as it gets in terms of the psychological complexity in romantic love, family bonds, and plain old friendship. But there was that slowness factor to get past, or put up with, don't you think?

I m the kite said...

I was interested to read the comments regarding Bridge of Sighs. I loved this book; I mean I loved everything about this book. Some criticisms of it include that it is far too wordy, but in my view, the picture is painted in such rich detail with all those words. I feel that Russo gives us so much of the reality of life...it isn't all car crashes and wild excitement, but an exploration of the characters and feelings and interaction that make a family, a relationship, a town real.

I had such an epiphany as I read this book...When the characters Sarah, and Lucy each come to their own realization of Bobby's place in their lives, seeing how much (mental, emotional) energy has always been spent on him, despite not having seen or talked to him in 40 years. When finally Lucy realizes 'How many times, after all, does the same person get to break your heart?' To me that was such a real 'lightning bolt' moment.

Some details I admit I missed on the first read, but as I read it again, questions filled in, and I just appreciated the scenes - such as the description, the importance of the picture of Sarah's mother with the cigarette ash....the 'surfing' in the milk truck, finding out that the teenaged Lucy had actually seen Sarah's picture of Bobby through the train window - Choosing to be happy is not the same as being too gullible to know the truth.

I recently saw Richard Russo speak, and while his focus was on his new book, he did say that writing Bridge of Sighs was dark and emotionally draining and he wondered after writing it if he had any stories left to tell. Lucky for us he found another.


Is it "choosing to be happy" or sour grapes? I thought the greatness of the book is posing the conflict of the road not taken.
Even if we don't have a real conflict in our personal lives do we ever stop wondering what might have been?

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