Last month I had dinner at The Palm with a dozen or so women. Toward the end of the meal I asked (apropos of what I can’t remember), “By a show of hands, how many of you were homecoming queen?” Rita Mitchell, our esteemed host, looked vaguely irritated, because this is not at all the sort of sophisticated conversation she encourages at her gatherings. But after glancing nervously around the room, about half the women raised their hands. I then asked, “How many of you were valedictorian?” Again, about half the room waves, including several of the homecoming queens. On a roll now, I asked the definitive question, “How many of you were cheerleaders?” Amid sheepish expressions and much laugher, almost every hand goes up.
Other than feeling incredibly inadequate having been neither homecoming queen nor cheerleader nor valedictorian, I found the exercise interesting. What is it about our schooldays that intrigues us years later? We schlep to our high school reunions not to see the old gym, but rather to see if the boy named “Most Likely to Succeed” actually did so. Does our childhood shape us irrevocably or is there an opportunity to rise above it?
In his latest novel, Richard Russo considers these questions as he follows three friends through their formative years and into adulthood. Like his Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs is set in an economically depressed factory town in upstate New York. Louis Charles (“Lucy”) Lynch is married to his childhood sweetheart, the former Sarah Berg, and owns three convenience stories that he inherited from his father. As the novel opens, Lucy and Sarah are planning a trip to Italy which may include a reunion with their childhood buddy Bobby Marconi. Bobby, now known as Robert Noonan, is a world- renowned artist living in Venice.
The trip has prompted the sixty year old Lucy to write his life story. Both Sarah and his mother, Tessa, are somewhat concerned about this as Lucy’s predilection for nostalgia is pronounced enough without further indulgence. All of Lucy’s conversations begin with, “You remember when….” The two women also suspect that while reminiscing about his childhood, Lucy may uncover some unpleasant realities.
Russo has a gift for portraying eccentric, small town characters. Or rather all the men seem to be “characters” and the women long suffering. Goofy Mr. Lynch Sr., his shiftless brother, Uncle Dec, crazy Mr. Berg, and Gabriel Mock Junior whose hobby is “howling” are sympathetic (mostly)misfits. The women especially Sarah and Tessa demonstrate tolerance and manage the consequences of the boys’ follies.
And as long as everyone stays in character, these fragile relationships hold up. People might be peculiar or even awful, but they are predictable. But when certain long held assumptions about the past are challenged, suddenly everyone is behaving out of character.
The novel alternates between Thomaston (past and present) and Venice and is a bit too long. But it is an original saga that addresses many universal concerns in a reliably readable fashion.
This ECW Classic Review was originally published in NFocus magazine.