Bridge of Sighs

After a lifetime lived in the same small upstate New York town, Lou C. Lynch, a deeply cautious and conventional man, is headed for a vacation in Italy. It's an improbable leap for this most improbable hero of Bridge of Sighs, but with Richard Russo -- master of blue-collar life (and a Pulitzer Prize winner, after all) -- at the helm, even the most oddball of setups can yield riches.

There's nothing much heroic about Lou, who was saddled with the unfortunate nickname "Lucy" during roll call on his first day of kindergarten. He's 60 years old now, large and soft, married for 40 years to his wife, Sarah. They own three small corner markets in Thomaston, a company town whose main industry, a tannery, has literally poisoned the soil they live on.

The Italy trip is Sarah's idea, and though Lou is outwardly willing, he's dreading it. Sure, he gets his passport and reads a guidebook or two, but he also chooses this time to start writing a memoir. It's here that we meet him, in the pages of his own book, in which he seeks to make sense of his life. There's nothing about his fussy, formal, and sometimes florid voice that can prepare us for the explosive mysteries his recollections expose.

Each question has multiple answers that, as they shape this novel's sweeping saga, force an examination of love and fate and destiny. Along the way, Russo introduces a dizzying number of characters. There's Lou's father, a cockeyed optimist, and his mother, forced into the thankless role of pragmatist. There's the enigma of Bobby's parents, a beaten-down wife and a sadistic husband. It's Sarah's father, a pot-smoking high school teacher, who cracks open the story -- and his students' minds -- with his bent and belligerent genius. Lou, an innocent, loves -- and mourns -- them all in his memoir. His inner voice, unlike his buffoonish exterior, reveals unexpected depth. "The loss of a place isn't really so different from the loss of a person," Lou writes. "Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence."

Russo plays with time throughout Bridge of Sighs. He switches voices from young Lou to grown-up Lou, from grown-up Bobby to Bobby at 18 years old. It's a rare gift, to be able to tell a story backward and forward and sideways all at once. Keeping us balanced on the slender ledge of what was and what may be takes a master's skill, and Russo's got it. He lures you through each page, eager to see how the destinies of these very different people will collide. And collide they will, there's no mistaking Russo's intent. As the climax draws near, it feels like those delicious, vertiginous moments of ascent in a roller coaster, where all that's familiar slips away and there you are, flying through space, just that slender bar across your lap to keep you safe.

There are plenty of small, treasurable moments, too. Here's teenage Lou thinking about sex for perhaps the first time as he watches a couple of classmates leave his father's store.

"Let's go," Jerzy said, then hooked his index finger into the waistband of Karen's slacks and gave it a gentle tug. When the material stretched, I could see that his finger was between her bare skin and her underpants -- a gesture made even more staggering by the fact that she didn't seem to object. Sex, I thought, just that one word. The slender finger slipped down between her bare skin and panties meant sex.

Russo's writing is so tidy and precise that when he carelessly repeats a word in a single sentence, it carries the shock of a misplayed chord. Twice, a fleeing woman's suitcase falls open to spill its secret contents into a public street. The shirts and bras and toothbrush and panties all get stuffed back in, "after which, of course, it wouldn't close." We get what it means -- that after a certain kind of breaking point, there's no going back -- but what's it mean to Russo that he plays the same scene twice?

In the end, Bridge of Sighs is as much about class as it is about place. It's about the divisions within a town and within a character's heart. As Lou moves from the bad to the better to the good side of town, as he marries and raises a family, loses and gains friends, he asks himself -- and us -- is he a person who lives his dreams, or does he flee them?

A final question, in the closing pages of the book, seems directed to the reader as well: "How many times, after

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