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June 8, 2016

“The Bridge of Sighs”

by Anne Paddock

In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice….To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy.

Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls wrote the Bridge of Sighs nearly a decade ago although the book is timeless in the classic Russo style of writing about life in a small town in upstate New York. A 640-page novel divided into 24 chapters (of which 23 are named), the Bridge of Sighs is primarily the story of Louis C. Lynch (also known as Lucy), a 60-year old business owner who has lived his whole life in Thomaston, New York – a small industrial town described as a trifecta of “stupidity, ignorance, and violence” and not unlike the real Johnston or Gloversville in New York which were known for their tanneries and glove making industries.

Lucy along with his wife of nearly 40 years, Sarah are about to embark on a trip to Venice, Italy to visit the “City of Canals” that is also known as the “City of Bridges,” the “City of Water,” and the “City of Masks” – all of which bear significance to the novel. But, before they embark on a trip whose purpose is to also reconnect with their childhood friend, Bobby Marconi – who “fled Thomaston for the wide world, never to return” and became a famous artist now known as Robert Noonan – Lucy has a story to tell about growing up in a town dependent upon a single industry in decline.

Bridge_of_SighsThomaston is a small town in upstate New York whose prosperity was driven by the tannery business which also happened to poison the water its inhabitants relied on, causing health issues that most residents were willing to overlook for a paycheck and security. Lucy was born here, the only child of Tessa and Big Lou Lynch, who started out as a milkman and when that business died, turned to buying and operating convenience stores.

As Lucy takes the reader through his childhood and adolescence filling the pages with stories of his family and his friendships with Bobby and Sarah (his best friend and future wife, respectively), the reader becomes intimate with every aspect of life in Thomaston – the social caste system in town, the blatant racism, bullying, gender roles, environmentalism, and the almost unanimous decision of the town residents to stand by and allow the pieces to fall where they will.

But is the living of life so different from the telling of it? Do we not, a hundred times a day, decide not to bear witness? Do we not deny and suppress even at the level of instinct?

At the center of the story is the friendship and a love triangle between Lucy, Sarah, and Bobby and yet, the story is so much richer than what happened over a summer nearly 40 years ago.  Lucy is a man committed to his family, Thomaston and at heart, is an eternal optimist. Sarah is the only child of a failed writer and an adventurous, artistic mother who left the marriage causing Sarah, also an artist to cling to the predictability of the Lynch family. Bobby is the popular troubled and gifted native son who was bullied by an overbearing father and driven to protect a mother, who couldn’t protect herself, until he realizes he must save himself.

These three characters’ life stories unfold on the pages over a 60-year period in which the reader learns that Lucy loves Bobby, Sarah loves Lucy and Bobby, and Bobby loves Sarah.  Love triangles make for a great story (Freedom, The Bridges of Madison County, Casablanca, Pride and Prejudice) because the question always seems to come back to  choice and regret.

Don’t even the best and most fortunate of lives hint at other possibilities, at a different kind of sweetness and, yes, bitterness too? Isn’t this why we can’t help feeling cheated , even when we know we haven’t been?

canstockphoto10986169In Venice, Italy there is a small bridge called the “Bridge of Sighs.” Made of white limestone more than 400 years ago (1600), the Bridge of Sighs connects a palace to a prison. Although the bridge is enclosed, there are two small windows on each side covered with a stone lattice grill. Legend has it that prisoners “came to understand that all hope was lost” and sighed at their last look of Venice before being imprisoned below. The metaphor of the bridge with Thomaston as the prison and the world outside Thomaston as the Palace – or is it the opposite – is not lost on the reader but at the end of the day, it all boils down to perspective.

To imagine a different life was to imagine a different self with which to live it.

The one life we’re left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.

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