In Thomastown, the people know their places. The declining industrial town at the center of Richard Russo's Bridge Of Sighs divides neatly down the middle: The poor stay on one side, those with a little more money stay on the other, and those who sign the checks for both live above them all. But not everyone stays where they belong. For some, it takes a lifetime to move from one area to another. Others get jerked back violently. Others simply decide to get out.
Beginning life as a milkman's son and ending it as an outwardly contented owner of a small string of convenience stores, Bridge Of Sighs' central character belongs to the first camp. At age 60, on the verge of making his first significant foray outside Thomastown, he's become obsessed with putting his story to paper. Halfway across the world in Venice, his childhood best friend, Bobby Marconi, has re-created himself as artist Robert Noonan, but he winds up similarly dwelling on his past, with Lou's wife Sarah at the forefront of his ruminations.
As always with Russo, the characters come first. But Bridge Of Sighs is as much a story about a place, and the way that place changes and fails to change over time, through the people who live there. Russo relies on multiple perspectives: Lou provides sentimental first-person narration that slowly reveals he has a better grasp on his own life than is initially apparent. Bobby's story is told in gently ironic third person, and when Sarah takes the focus, her segments share the same tone before assuming a sad gravity.
Russo's magnificent Empire Falls used a similar northeastern town as a barometer for the state of the nation. Here, he gets even more ambitious, which sometimes gets the better of him. Major characters who could fill out entire solo novels get introduced well past the halfway point, and the clashing tones can be more distracting than revealing. Yet for all its unwieldiness, Bridge Of Sighs remains a beguiling, humane, unsparing novel with a vision of the world where every joy contains its contrary, whether it's a town whose prosperity comes from an industry that poisons its residents, or a heartbreak that inspires a whole career. Early in the novel, Lou describes his hometown—his world, really—as "luxuriant and demanding." He could be talking about the book around him.