Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Beauty of an "Uneventful" LIfe

Happy new year everyone. Here in Southwest Florida January 1st was one of those rare and wonderful days, cloudy, rainy, sweatshirt-wearing chilly, that we welcome as a respite from the never ending blue skies and balmy temperatures. Don was rebuilding a computer and I got to stretch out on the couch, book in one hand, Beaujolais Nouveau in the other.

I am suffering from a major case of author envy. How on earth does Richard Russo do it? I've always loved his work, my favorite being the send up of campus politics, Straight Man. Bridge of Sighs, though all reviewers don't agree, is on another whole level in my opinion. It may be that I can't put this book down because Russo is writing my life. I recognize every minute detail that makes living in a small, insular northeastern community both "the best and worst of times." I see friends who, much like Lou (Lucy) Flynn, stay in town and thrive, becoming the heart and soul of the next generation's leaders. In Lou's best friend, Bobby Marconi, I see much of myself, fleeing like a bird accidentally let loose from its cage, looking back as seldom as possible, trying to reinvent himself in a very different environment.

It could, of course, have nothing to do with me at all (though my sister insists it's always about me!). It may be that Richard Russo is simply one of the finest American novelists/storytellers of our time, a writer whose heart is as big as the hefty tomes his readers long to lose themselves in. The families who inhabit the mill town of Thomaston, NY, a somewhat thinly veiled reference to Russo's own hometown of Gloversville, NY, are composed of some deeply flawed and yet truly loveable men and women resembling everyone you've ever known. Spanning three generations of the Lynch, Marconi and Berg families, life in Russo's Thomaston, though seemingly uneventful, is a microcosm of American history in the second half of the twentieth century.

The tannery that employs many of the town's people, helping them to fulfill the great American dream of homeownership, is also responsible for pumping the poisonous effluent into the river, creating a legacy of cancerous tumors that will decimate the population for years to come. The schism in the town between those who can move up and those who never will is evidenced by Division Street (there's one in every town, isn't there?). The ones who live on the wrong side of that street, girls like the precocious tease, Karen Cirillo, understand enough to know that their place on the social ladder is static, already determined by teachers who pigeonhole their kids based on what their parents did in school. Histories are seldom forgotten, making it difficult to live down a youthful indiscretion. The Civil Rights Movement seems to have bypassed Thomaston and a violent racial incident leaves relations between blacks and whites tenuous at best.

Still, I regret every time I have to put this book down for the demands of my real life. The Bridge of Sighs elicits sighs from me as I marvel at Russo's use of our language, his insight into and compassion for the human condition, his use of metaphor that's so descriptive that I keep interrupting Don to read just one more passage out loud. Run, don't walk, to your local library or go online right now and reserve a copy of this terrific book!

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