Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

I am not sure where to begin this review. Maybe the beginning is the best place.

My wife bought this book for me when it was published in November of 2007. She hid it and refused to give it to me until 12/24. So, I decided to make it my first read of 2008 -- a perfect beginning for what I hope is a spectacular year of reading.

Last week was the beginning of the semester, but I still could have finished it then. I dragged out the last hundred pages or so, because I did NOT want it to end. Since about the 11th, I have been reading 3-4 pages at a time. Not even whole chapters – just pieces of them. Today, I faced the inevitable and finished it.

Now what? Few books have affected me as much as this one. This is a powerful story, filled with interesting, finely drawn characters, and events of such intimate detail, it made me a part of the town of Thomaston as only the best works of fiction can do.

Long a fan of Russo, I have read all his novels, and Straight Man was my favorite before Bridge. That, now #2, Russo novel is about an English professor in a small, liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania. I quickly identified with the main character on most levels -- enough levels to convert me to a Russo fanatic.

If you saw the HBO special, Empire Falls, you might have some idea of Russo’s work, but not nearly enough. His novels are complex, and contain complex characters with enough feeling and emotion for a reader to become lost in the world he creates.

Bridge of Sighs is no exception.

This multi-generational novel is told from the viewpoint of a character almost exactly my age. As he approaches his 60s, he begins to write his memoirs, beginning with his parents, their triumphs, failures, foibles, and flaws. He expands into his friends as a small boy, takes us through his high school years, and into adult hood. He doesn’t forget any of the minor characters either. He brings them along, and we all age together.

An interesting feature of the book, one that will bring me back for a second read soon, is the role particular objects play in spinning a web which ties characters, generations, races, classes, and events together. Drawings, walls and fences, kisses, a stream, a store and, of course, bridges – literal and metaphoric – create a painting of massive beauty. Some thing like those huge paintings by David, with dozens of figures in a sweeping landscape.

If you call your self a reader, you must read this book. Do not let the length (528 pp) daunt you. The story flows so smoothly, you will be done in no time – unless you drag out the last 100 pages the way I did. Five stars. -- Chiron

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