I think it is fair to say that, although particular books of his might receive a few less-than-effusive endorsements, Richard Russo is a highly regarded novelist among mainstream American book reviewers. Although Empire Falls seems to be the work that received the greatest praise, and remains a critical favorite, reviews of Russo's two most recent novels, Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic, only confirm Russo's standing. Ron Charles, not ordinarily given to hyperbole, called Bridge of Sighs "a lovely, deep-hearted novel," even though he also identified several seemingly serious flaws (and then wondered if "these complaints sound more damning than I mean them to.") Janet Maslin found it "richly evocative and beautifully wrought, delivered with deceptive ease," further lauding Russo's "wonderfully unfashionable gift for effortless storytelling on a sweeping, multigenerational scale," while Glenn C. Altschuler swoons over That Old Cape Magic, declaring it "suffused with [Russo's] signature comic sensibility, and with insights, by turns tender and tough, about human frailty, forbearance, fortitude, and fervor."
In support of such praise, reviewers most often cite Russo's ability to evoke a sense of place, especially his native upstate New York, his creation of believable characters to whom he seems to have "affection," his "comic sensibility," as Altschuler puts it, although this is sometimes referred to as his "wry" tone, as well as his lively, if uncomplicated, prose style. Most importantly, these virtues are put in the service of an emotionally resonant, "humane" vision that, if it doesn't always make us feel good, nevertheless satisfyingly reveals to us what it means "to be human." ("When you finish a Russo novel," writes Geoff Schumacher in his review of TOCM "you feel you have really learned something about how human beings function.") You may like some of Russo's books more than others, but they are all "deep-hearted."
Presumably many readers agree with these assessments, since, among "literary" writers, Russo is one of the most popular. And it may indeed be the case that to the extent there is a larger audience for "serious" fiction, a writer like Richard Russo is what those readers (and critics) want. However, although I can understand why many readers might enjoy Russo's novels, which provide a kind of expansive realism and a cast of characters with whom to "identify," I can't accept that this sort of fiction qualifies as "serious" or "literary" or that reviewers would so readily and eagerly celebrate Russo's novels as such. Both the qualities that might make his novels "good reads" and that make them critically embarrassing choices as exemplars of aesthetically serious fiction can be seen in Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic.
Bridge of Sighs is a family saga centering around the life of Lou C. ("Lucy") Lynch, introduced to us as a 60 year-old married man and proprietor of several convenience stores. Told mostly from Lucy's point of view, the novel chronicles Lucy's childhood in Thomaston, an upstate New York equivalent of a decaying mill town, his love/hate relationship with his parents (love for his father, a good deal of hate for his mother), his intense friendship (intense on Lucy's part, at least) for Bobby Marconi, his courtship of Sarah, who eventually becomes his wife. Most of the drama enacted among these characters is pretty soapy. Indeed, as Louis Menand has it, Bridge of Sighs is "high-quality soap opera," distinguishable from a book like Peyton Place mostly in that it is "gentler."
Menand thinks that the characters in Bridge of Sighs are nevertheless "convincingly alive" (as arguably they are not in Peyton Place), but I can't quite agree. Lucy Lynch is a plausible enough creation (although I don't completely believe in his utter passivity and his attachment to the dreary Thomaston), but the other characters are too neatly arranged into palpable dualisms: the saintly Sarah and the whorish Karen, both of whom might be vying for Lucy's affection; the gregarious and optimistic Lou, Sr., who dotes on Lucy, and the impatient, disabused Tessa, who tries to make her son face reality; the shiftless but lovable Gabriel Mock, a black man who befriends Lucy and the industrious if stern Miss Rosa, whom Sarah meets near the end of the novel (that these are the portraits Russo is able to make of African-American characters seems especially unfortunate, although both characters are forced to speak in a thoroughly unconvincing rendition of Black English). These flaws notwithstanding, by far the least convincing character in the book is Bobby Marconi, or at least the version of Bobby that becomes "Robert Noonan," a world-renowned artist who managed to leave Thomaston and then find his calling as an artistic genius--a calling for which there is no hint whatsoever in the depiction of Bobby Marconi.
I do agree with Menand that it is a strength of Russo's writing that he is able to convincingly portray a sense of place, to use a town like Thomaston to illustrate "the postwar metamorphosis of places like Thomaston. . .from self-sufficient centers of minor industry into faceless, interchangeable nodes in the giant exurban sprawl." As Menand suggests, Russo is able to do this by taking towns like Thomaston seriously in all their specificity, focusing on things like "what happens when a new A. & P. comes to town--it puts the milkman out of work and the corner grocery store out of business." If nothing else, one leaves Bridge of Sighs with a strong impression of the reality of Thomaston, and towns like it. This is a not insignificant achievement, and to the extent critics base their esteem for Russo on it they are to some extent justified, although most reviewers focus on setting as simply a sociological given rather than on how Russo engages with setting aesthetically-how he makes it aesthetically credible.
That Old Cape Magic also strongly evokes setting, although in this case it couldn't really be farther removed, metaphorically, at least, from the socially marginalized setting of Bridge of Sighs. This novel is framed by two trips to Cape Cod, and much of the rest is concerned with the protagonist's memories of family trips there. Although the protagonist's family was in a sense rooted in the "Mid-fucking-west," as his parents called it, those roots were not planted voluntarily--his parents were academics who were exiled there by the exigencies of the job market--and place in this novel is simply the scene of family drama rather than, as in Bridge of Sighs, a source of those forces that shape the family drama. The Griffins wanted out of Indiana, son Jack has only professional reasons for living first in Los Angeles (he is a screenwriter) and then in Connecticut (where he goes to teach screenwriting), and Cape Cod was significant to Jack' parents only because it represented the place in the social hierarchy they believed they should occupy. The Griffins couldn't even bring themselves to buy a house in their college town, preferring to rent out the houses of colleagues on sabbatical.
The Griffins eventually divorce, and most of That Old Cape Magic alternates between episodes in which Jack either reminisces about his parents and their eventual fates or attempts to deal with his still-living mother (while carrying around his recently deceased father's ashes in the trunk of his car) and episodes that essentially chronicle the process of his own marriage's failure. Where Bridge of Sighs is a soap opera of the small-town working class, That Old Cape Magic is a soap opera of the cosmopolitan middle class. If you think the psychological "turmoil" of a late-middle-aged screenwriter turned academic is the stuff of great drama, you may appreciate the novel, but if you'd rather that a novel have some aesthetic interest beyond the tedious recounting of curdled affluence, you will likely find it, as I did, quite a snooze (although of mercifully short duration, as Russo novels go).
The portrayal of the parents as academics with monstrous egos is presumably an instance of the "humor" of which so many reviewers of Russo's fiction take note, but it seems to me more vicious than funny, although I guess there's still a little entertainment value in the viciousness. Another example of Russo's humor must be a scene late in the book in which a man in a wheelchair finds himself upside down in a tree. This didn't seem cruel so much as an obvious attempt to inject "comedy" into a novel that otherwise doesn't have much. Some reviewers in emphasizing Russo's "humanity" speak of his "optimism," and I guess in ending more or less happily (the protagonist and his wife are cautiously reunited) That Old Cape Magic is optimistic, or "deep-hearted," but it really only reinforces the soap opera, although in this case not very effectively. Here the happy ending doesn't seem so much earned or unearned as also merely perfunctory. Since I didn't really understand what the problem with the protagonist's marriage was in the first place (something to do with his preoccupation with the past, I think), their reunion at the end seemed equally unaccountable.
In his review of Bridge of Sighs, Stephen Metcalf remarks that Russo is "among the least 'meta” writers going,' but there are, surprisingly enough, some "meta" elements in both of these novels. In Bridge of Sighs, Lucy Lynch reports to us that he is writing a memoir about his younger days, so presumably that memoir is the source of much of his narrative, although not all of it, and at times the narration switches to third-person accounts of both Sarah and Bobby Marconi, describing events at which Lucy cannot be present. In That Old Cape Magic, Jack Griffin writes a long story based on one of his family's summer stays at the Cape, which is presented as a more or less truthful rendition of events, as if it isn't a story at all, even though it is eventually published in a literary magazine as fiction. Later in the novel, his mother tells him on her deathbed a version of her life with his father he has not heard before, a story he calls the "Morphine Narrative" and which he assumes is fiction, but can't be sure. In both novels, then, we are given reasons to doubt the accuracy and reliability of the narratives we are reading--Is Lucy's version of events what really happened, or is it unavoidably colored by his retrospective self-interest? Are the third-person sections devoted to Sarah and Bobby actually being written by Lucy as well, speculating about their actions? If the morphine narrative is correct, does that make the story of Griffin's past as otherwise related through his possibly flawed perspective unreliable even beyond his already uncertain, filtered memories?
Unfortunately, while the novels inherently raise these questions, potentially adding an intriguing complexity to the narrative method, a judicious reading of each suggests that these interpolated narratives and narrative devices are to be taken at face value, as, in Bridge of Sighs, the immediate motivation of Lucy's story, but no more than the occasion of Lucy's retrospection and thus of the beginning of the novel we are reading, and, in That Old Cape Magic, a facet of the protagonist's professional life and a feature of the age of pharmaceuticals. In both novels, "writing" is beside the point beyond the fact it gets the story underway or helps it keep moving along. The "meta" elements are supplements to character and plot, not opportunities to provide aesthetic depth through a beneficial thematic ambiguity--or rather they are such opportunities but this case squandered ones.
In concluding her review of That Old Cape Magic, Elaine Showalter observes that, whatever the novel's virtues, they will manage "to keep most readers entertained until the movie comes out." I suspect that, as with other works of "literary fiction" that could easily enough be transformed into movie scripts, the movie versions of both Bridge of Sighs and That Old Cape Magic would probably be better than the novels. Indeed, I'm not sure why they weren't written as film scripts rather than novels, since there's very little in them that depends on the novel as a form for their appeal. Indeed, one can imagine them as "quirky" indy films or even "quality" Lifetime movies without much if any diminution of effect. Why reviewers so revere Russo as a serious novelist is a mystery to me.