Bridge Of Sighs, by Richard Russo

A big American novel that zooms in on the little incidents of small-town life
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The only way to be sure that you can go home again is never to leave in the first place. Richard Russo's novels of small-town life are always essays in regret; his heroes and heroines make the best of lives limited by accidents, their own choices and geography. He is an artist in a very American grain, whose long novels packed with small incidents have, in memory, the terse wistfulness of short poems.

Louis C Lynch, Russo's garrulous main narrator, is a man whose entire life has been affected by a childhood nickname – he got called Lucy by bullies – and by his father's decision to buy a failing grocery store. Much of Bridge of Sighs deals with the sense of duty that keeps Louis in the store and in Thomaston, and the happiness he finds in small things. His best friend Bobby gets away and becomes a famous painter, but never escapes the demons evoked by his violent father and hapless mother.

Wherever you are, you are shackled by the past: Louis is haunted by an incident when bullies locked him in a trunk, Bobby by the time his father smashed open the suitcase of clothes with which his mother was trying to leave. It is an example both of Russo's occasional crudity, and his finesse in transcending these slips into the obvious, that in both cases he makes literal the clichéd concept of "having baggage".

This is also the story of Sarah, who chooses small-town life over the larger possibilities of art, and Louis over Bobby. She has learnt from her father's struggle to complete a worthless vast novel, and her mother's fecklessness, that the solid worthiness that the Lynch family offers her is the least bad option she can take. It is one of Russo's weaknesses that he tends to regard the choices of good women to centre on sense and moderation, while some of his men are allowed to go to extremes.

This is also a novel about the dark side of small towns, from, in the case of Thomaston, the carcinogenic dyes that pollute it, to the difficulty of escaping that in which you are hopelessly complicit. As a teenager, Sarah makes an anti-racist gesture that has terrible consequences, and only in wise middle life does she manage to find a way of atoning for that earlier clumsiness. Mostly, Russo's characters have no choice, but just sometimes, they make the right one.

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