Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

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I read Russo’s Empire Falls a few years back, and think it’s an exceptional piece of work. Since my son was born, I read everything slightly differently, and Russo is one, in particular, who keeps coming back to themes on what it means to be a son, to be a father. Bridge of Sighs is a very good book — not as good as Empire Falls, but still a really wonderful novel. But rather than talk about Russo, I think I’ll put in some of his own words. Mostly, it’s a great story told by a man in middle age about his life growing up — and periodically he stops the narrative to try to synthesize. Here’s a relatively lengthy passage that comes early in the book:

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 my be an illusion is something we disregard, because we’re curious to know what’s behind the 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 and 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…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?

This is amazingly articulate about the interior musings of our lives and how they change as we all get older. To be clear, I don’t share this same outlook, but as I reflect on being a father and having a family, I’m beginning to understand the way this thought pattern works, and that people really feel this closing of doors, this inevitability of dominoes falling. For myself, I still see nothing but doors and opportunities, and hope that I can see them until my last breath (hopefully a long long time in the future!). But for Russo to be able to articulate this sense is a really wonderful gift, I think, and I enjoyed this book.

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