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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo
(1/5 stars)

(I'm going to spoil the hell out of this, so please don't chide me about spoiler space.  You've been warned!)

Richard Russo's previous novel "Empire Falls" won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest award for American fiction.  The only award "Bridge of Sighs" should receive would be for Most Boring Narrator of a Novel.

And I'm not just saying that as some random crackpot or someone who reads Tom Clancy books all the time and stumbled on this one.  I've read all of Russo's other books, including his book of short stories.  "Nobody's Fool," "Empire Falls," and "Risk Pool" were all great novels.

Which is why this is so disappointing to me.  If I can speculate (and why not, it's my review) I think after winning the Pulitzer Russo wanted to do something "serious" to prove he was a Great American Novelist like Hemingway, Updike, etc.  So he tries all this misdirection and sleight of hand by changing narrators and tenses, creating stories within the story.  The problem, though, is that when unraveled the story is perfectly ordinary, a tale so shopworn no amount of magic tricks could make it seem original.

What it all boils down to are three kids and their parents.  There's Lou C. "Lucy" Lynch, who unfortunately narrates most of the story.  Lucy is such a boring, needy, neurotic individual that if he were real I'd want to knock his teeth out.  At 60 he still acts the way he did at 6 and his greatest wish would be that he could be 6 again and living with his mommy and daddy.  How sick is that?  I mean a lot of us would like to be in our late teens or 20s again, but Lucy actually wants to be a little kid.

Since there's no fortune telling machine around to do a reverse "Big" he's lucky to find a woman to wipe his nose and clean up after him.  Her name is Sarah.  She's a painter and substitute teaches art classes at the local schools.  She lost a breast to cancer and had a miscarriage and gave birth to their son Owen.  Of course we only get the bare minimum of detail about that so we can have hundreds of pages of Lucy riding in milk trucks and painting fences like the lost episodes of "Leave It to Beaver."

Sarah also loved another man, a far more interesting man.  His name is Bobby Marconi, later Bobby Noonan.  Where Lucy was the boring nerd like Richie Cunningham (or Potsy really), Bobby was the Fonz, with a motorcycle and tough guy attitude and probably a leather jacket.  Bobby's father was an emotionally abusive jerk, continually knocking up Bobby's mother.  This produced a series of boys who are referred to collectively, except one apparently was named David.  Anyway, once he comes back from military school, Bobby joins the football team and starts dating the beauty queen.  But he really wants Lucy's girlfriend Sarah.  And she really wants him, but she settles for Lucy, which as my Amazon friend Ethan Cooper said is obviously a sign of a character defect.  What girl is really going to pick Potsy over the Fonz?

Far, far too much time is spent on the saga of Lucy's parents opening New York's first convenience store.  I scoffed at how his mom spontaneously comes up with the idea of the modern convenience store.  According to our good friends at Wikipedia they already had 7-11 down south, but to hear Russo tell it Tessa Lynch is the one who came up with the whole thing.

A story with a boring narrator like Lucy can be successful if you can do at least one of two things:

1.  Move the character to interesting locations.
2.  Surround the character with interesting people.

Russo doesn't really do either.  Early on we're told that present day Lucy and Sarah are going to Italy, which is where Bobby is living after becoming a successful painter.  So it seems obvious that Lucy and Sarah should go there and see the interesting places like Rome, Florence, and finally Venice where Bobby lives.

But no.  Instead we stay moribund in Thomaston, New York, the kind of place only Lucy Lynch could love because it's so dreadfully boring.  Most Russo novels feature a down-on-its-luck small town in New York or Maine, but this seemed like the least interesting of any of them.  Well it's like they say, it's the people who make the town.

Which is the second problem.  Other than Bobby, no one else is all that interesting.  Lou's father is appropriately called Big Lou.  That's exactly what he is:  Lou, only bigger--and just as dull.  Lou's mom is most often nagging or bossing everyone around.  Sarah's only slightly better than that.  At least at times there was Uncle Dec there for a little comic relief, otherwise it'd be one bland scene after another.

So we have a dull location with equally dull people.  That leaves very little reason for any reader to keep trudging through the maze Russo sets up.  A smart reader would give up by 300 pages.  An inordinately stubborn reader would plow through to the end, hoping for something to make it worthwhile, only to be sorely disappointed.

This was obviously a misfire for Russo.  The only good thing is that his next novel, "That Old Cape Magic" was much better.  It far more succinctly dealt with the same issues of kids and their parents and a woman loving two different men.  So maybe Russo learned from his mistakes.  I hope so.

Now for my own amusement and to recap what I just said, here are the notes I wrote in the comments of Ethan Cooper's review:

BJ Fraser says:
I had to roll my eyes this afternoon when I got up to the part where his mom invents the convenience store. You really expect me to believe that, Richard Russo? He could have at least had her read or hear about it somewhere else first. As it is I doubt a bookkeeper in upstate New York came up with 7-11...but I'll have to go look it up in Wikipedia.

BJ Fraser says:
I've slogged my way through to nearly page 300 now. Except for the locked in the trunk part and the fight outside the movie theater there's really been nothing interesting as far as Lucy goes. The Noonan parts are better.

BJ Fraser says:
And to follow up to one of my comments, 7-11 began in 1927 in Texas and by the time Lucy's mom comes up with her convenience store, 7-11 already had a bunch of locations open from 7 to 11. The better way to do this would have been to have someone come back from a trip to Texas and mention something offhand to Lucy's mom instead of her seemingly on the spot coming up with the idea.

BJ Fraser says:
Lucy's stories really are tedious. His parents argue about money: whose don't? Even billionaire parents probably argue about buying a solid gold 747 from time to time.

When I did my Bildungsroman, I realized after going over the first draft I needed to get through the childhood stuff fairly quickly and move him to more interesting locales. But he has a Pulitzer and I don't, so what do I know?

BJ Fraser says:
I'm on the last 100 pages now. It all boils down to Lucy and Noonan both love Sarah. As if that hasn't been done a million times before. It's just a bunch of sleight of hand with the weird structure to make it seem like it's something different.

BJ Fraser says:
There is a little bit from Sarah's perspective back in high school/college. (Apparently we're never going to get to that period from between college to when they're 60.)

I'm thinking that Noonan runs away after high school (either because of guilt or dodging Vietnam or both) leaving Sarah to go with the boring guy or nothing at all. Many people probably would have chosen nothing.

I'm probably going to annoy people by putting in spoilers whenever I do finish.

BJ Fraser says:
You don't think The Boring NonAdventures of Lucy Lynch would be a great series? At least it would be good for those suffering from insomnia

BJ Fraser says:
Actually that sounds like a good idea for a series of Saturday Night Live skits. In one episode a quart of milk at Ikey Lubin's is nearing the expiration date. Shots of Lucy sweating and staring at the milk as the clock ticks with dramatic music in the background. Then just as Lucy is about to take the milk out, someone comes along and buys it. In the next thrilling episode, Lucy has only 4 pennies left in the cash register!

BJ Fraser says:
BTW, last year I used the Bridge of Sighs in a story. I wonder if Russo was aware of the tradition I found out from Wikipedia, which I assume is true:

Ahead I see there are already a pair of gondolas approaching the enclosed bridge between the old prisons and the interrogation rooms of the Doge's Palace. This bridge is called the Ponte dei Sospiri or later as the "Bridge of Sighs." I probably could have walked the interior of the bridge if any authorities in Venice had ever caught me scrambling around the city and peeping into people's windows.

"What are we doing here?" I ask Alejandro.

"It's a local superstition that if you kiss beneath the bridge at sunset, your love with last forever," he says.

"Did you kiss Aggie here?"

"No, but I want to kiss you here."

The gondolier finds some space for us to park beneath the bridge.

Though I know I shouldn't, I turn around to face Alejandro. As the sun sets, we each lean forward to kiss. It's a chaster kiss than we usually share, due to the presence of the gondolier and other lovers nearby.

BJ Fraser says:
And while I'm going on and on, perhaps the most unforgivable sin is not having Lucy and Sarah go to Italy as they'd been planning. Is there any question that Venice would make for a much more interesting setting than Thomaston, New York? You've got the art, the architecture, the history, and the canals in Venice. What's Thomaston got? A dirty river and a bunch of houses and businesses going to seed. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

BJ Fraser says:
Turns out you were right about Sarah. What happens is that her mom dies and then she collapses into Lucy's arms and that's how they wind up together.

But there was a little drama when Lucy found a love letter Sarah wrote to Bobby after a recent masectomy. They had a slight argument and then she went off to her mom's old neighborhood in Long Island. Of course she'll come back though. Maybe she'll run into Bobby in New York, though I doubt it.

BTW, what I find hilarious is that in the Acknowledgments he thanks his editor for "saving" this novel; I can't even imagine how terrible it was before the editor got to it.

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