Bridge of Sighs

A very good book I just finished reading over the weekend was Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Russo is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for writing Empire Falls. I had never read anything of Russo’s before reading Bridge of Sighs. Before traveling to Venice a few years ago, all “Bridge of Sighs” meant to me was an album by Robin Trower that came out in the 1970’s. I can’t even remember any of the songs from that album. I had no idea what the real Bridge of Sighs was and what it might have signified for countless people hundreds of years ago (even if Lord Byron romanticized it all) until I actually traversed the bridge and looked out the windows towards the Grand Canal.

Bridge of Sighs, the book, is full of symbolism (just like the real thing) and this book has multiple layers that make up the lives of several families in a small town in upstate New York, an area full of bridges (literally). If you are from a small town, or are a member of some sort of small community, be it a family, school, church, or even a company, you can probably relate to the social and power structures of these, as Russo brings forth in his novel. Russo narrates the book from the point of view of two boys who grow through the years into two men. Two of the best paragraphs that Russo wrote are from a chapter entitled “Division Street.” Russo addressed the fact that many towns have streets named Main, and some even have a street named Division, which was probably named so because the road split the town into two parts. Following are these powerful paragraphs:

Odd, how our view of human destiny changes over the course of a lifetime. In youth we believe what the young believe, that life is all choice. We stand before a hundred doors, choose to enter one, where we’re faced with a hundred more and then choose again. We choose not just what we’ll do, but who we’ll be. Perhaps the sound of all those doors swinging shut behind us each time we select this one or that one should trouble us, but it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that the doors often are identical and even lead in some cases to the exact same place. Occasionally a door is locked, but no matter, since so many others remain available. The distinct possibility that choice itself may be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind that next door, the one we hope will lead us to the very heart of the mystery. Even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary we remain confident that when we emerge, with all our choosing done, we’ll have found not just our true destination but also its meaning. The young see life this way, front to back, their eyes to the telescope that anxiously scans the infinite sky and its myriad possibilities. Religion, seducing us with free will while warning us of our responsibility, reinforces youth’s need to see itself at the dramatic center, saying yes to this an no to that, against the backdrop of a great moral reckoning.

But at some point all of that changes. Doubt, born of disappointment and repetition, replaces curiosity. In our weariness we begin to sense the truth, that more doors have closed behind than remain ahead, and for the first time we’re tempted to swing the telescope around and peer at the world through the wrong end–-though who can say it’s wrong? How different things look then! Larger patterns emerge, individual decisions receding into insignificance. To see a life back to front, as everyone begins to do in middle age, is to strip it of its mystery and wrap it in inevitability, drama’s enemy. Or so it sometimes seems to me, Louis Charles Lynch. The man I’ve become, the life I’ve lived, what are these but dominoes that fall not as I would have them but simply as they must?

─Russo, Richard. Bridge of Sighs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, p. 129-130.