Near the end of Richard Russo's sprawling new novel Bridge of Sighs, Noonan, a tough adolescent from a dysfunctional family who grows up to be a well-regarded artist, recalls a crucial moment from his senior year in high school.
He enters Ikey Lubin's, a run-down corner store in Thomaston, a decaying upstate New York town, slowly being poisoned by the tannery chemicals that have turned its river red. Though decrepit, Ikey Lubin's has become a refuge for the book's main characters. As Noonan enters the store he realizes that Ikey Lubin's is a place he could belong. He begins to think about his English teacher, a man "drawn to extremes, both philosophical and dramatic…Small men with small dreams didn't interest him, even when their dreams demanded enormous faith and endless forbearance. Ikey Lubin's was a small thing. A small, good thing. You could count on it much like you could count on the Lynches, not for what they didn't have but for what they did."
Russo focuses on a small circle of people in a small place. Lou C. Lynch, nicknamed Lucy by unkind children in kindergarten, sits at the novel's heart, and his recollections of the past, his recounting of town dynamics and events, make up the largest part of the novel. At sixty he's lived all his life in Thomaston, most of it at Ikey Lubin's. He married his high school sweetheart and never wanted to leave. In particular he wants to preserve memories of Big Lou, his milkman father, as though by doing so he will make Big Lou's optimistic worldview-that everything will turn out fine--true. Lucy is a careful chronicler, recording most events in minute detail, but he leaves some thinks out-and the reader understands that Thomaston has its mysteries.
As events in the present undermine his recollections, Lou begins to understand better the father he adored and the mother he resented. "Odd, how I grew up thinking my parents were opposites, my father the optimist, my mother the cynic. In reality, she occupied the middle ground between his willfully blind faith in the basic goodness of his fellow man and Mr. Berg's [the English teacher] equally blinkered and needy belief in its corruption."
As the story moves forward we see that most, but not all, the characters walk paths set out for them from birth, without hope in the world. They are like the convicts passing over the bridge in Venice known as the Bridge of Sighs-from which the novel gets its title-- headed to prison where all hope is lost. This book is full of hopeless lives, cut short by suicide, war, cancer, alcohol.
But a few characters break free, and the book ends on a note of hope. Lou, who has been so reluctant to leave Thomaston and the ghosts of the past, has changed, and he's looking forward to upcoming trips: "And in the summer, Italy. This time we'll go. We will leave this small, good world behind us with the comfort of knowing it'll be here when we return. But. We will go."