Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs is a sprawling, warm blanket of a book that, like Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, explores small town values and small town ugliness, the myth of upward mobility, and the importance of carving out a friendly corner of the world.

Russo's primary narrator and our (occasionally unreliable) guide through the paths of memory and memoir is Lou "Lucy" Lynch, a man who has lived his entire life in Thomaston, New York, "a place you've never heard of, unless you're a history buff, an art lover, or a cancer researcher." Lou is about to embark on a trip to Italy with his wife, Sarah, and the idea of leaving the country for the first time has prompted a desire to write his "story," to relive his childhood in Thomaston, his relationship with his parents—especially his beloved father, and his teenaged friendship with a boy named Bobby Marconi, now a famous painter living in Europe. Lou's story, of course, is also the story of Thomaston, and in typical Russo fashion, it's the type of big novel that you live inside while you're reading it, inhabiting it like a physical space, coming to care about its characters just as much as Russo does.

Bridge of Sighs is not as funny as Empire Falls, and Lou's narration is as sentimental as the character himself, particularly when he talks about the convenience store that his father purchased and that Lou still owns. Russo wisely doesn't limit the narrative voice to Lou's, though, and some of the best passages of the novel come from the perspective of Sarah or Bobby, both of whom offer the reader insights into the difference between how Lou perceives himself, and how others—others who care about him—perceive him.

The remarkable thing about this novel is that while we don't always trust Lou to tell us the truth—and he doesn't—we also forgive him his omissions. Russo is a compassionate writer who refuses to condemn humans for their weaknesses: Each of his characters is drawn with a commitment to revealing the passions and disappointments that shape even the most unlikeable personality. And even if, as Lucy's mother insists, people never change, Russo proves here that our understanding of them can.