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Richard Russo Discusses 'Bridge of Sighs'

by Jerome Weeks
Nov 6, 2007

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Jerome Weeks

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Richard Russo has drawn on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, N.Y., to become what The Washington Post calls "the patron saint of small-town fiction." Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Empire Falls, Russo writes about people who curb their dreams, feeling stuck in their ailing hometowns in New England. And he writes about people who escape those towns, but who can't escape a sense of loss.

In his new novel, Bridge of Sighs, Russo is at his most expansive. The story moves from Thomaston, a dying upstate New York tannery town, all the way to Venice, Italy, where the much-married, much-divorced Bobby Marconi has holed up. Marconi, a famous painter, escaped from Thomaston as a teenager. He left behind his friend Lou C. Lynch, a nice guy who stayed put and married his high-school sweetheart. Years later, Lynch begins writing a history of their town, and for research, travels to Venice to reunite with Marconi.

Bridge of Sighs links different families — the sons and fathers, the husbands and wives — and what seems like the entire population of a typically comic Russo town: the salt-of-the-earth types, the blue-collar eccentrics and the seedy characters.

This portrait of what may seem like lives trapped by the past is tempered by Russo's sense — inherited, he says, from F. Scott Fitzgerald — that we Americans have "a right, a privilege, maybe even the responsibility to reinvent ourselves." And then there's Russo's sardonic but big-hearted humor. In Bridge of Sighs, Lynch considers titling his town history, "The Dullest Story Ever Told."

Not so, says the Post. Instead, as in all of his writing, Russo takes the "small" out of small-town fiction.

In this public reading, recorded in October 2007 at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., Russo also discusses his academic career (he retired a decade ago from Maine's Colby College) and his rewarding collaborations with Hollywood director-screenwriter Robert Benton, including the films Nobody's Fool, Twilight and The Ice Harvest.

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Recorded at Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

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