The second novel from Michael Baron, CROSSING THE BRIDGE, tells the first person narrative story of Hugh, a young man whose younger and more popular and outgoing brother had died ten years earlier in what was deemed a drunk driving accident. Hugh’s father has had a heart attack, and Hugh, after wandering for many years since his brother’s death, has returned to his hometown to be with his parents during this difficult time and to help his father run the family stationery, gifts and card store.
While in town, he runs into his brother’s girlfriend from years ago and the two strike up a friendship, renewed from their fleeting friendship and secret attraction to one another from the decade prior. This is billed as a romantic book, but the romance part of it is very small compared to the rest of the story, and I definitely wouldn’t have considered this to be a love story.
Hugh wanders and we, the readers, wander with him, as he makes observations about the town, his past, his life, the people in the town and the events happening with his father’s health and the employees at the store. Hugh makes observations-ones I can only say are completely off the mark and wholly inaccurate-so that I find myself thinking there is no single person in the world more clueless than Hugh. He misreads his mother, his father, his friend Iris… well, just about everyone.
Now, if this had been the intent of the story, or if it had even been the story itself, this might have worked. As it was, Hugh comes off as a wholly unsympathetic narcissist, selfish and very shallow. I find myself very upset with him on several occasions, and had he been a real person, I would have taken him by the collar and shaken some sense into him. In the first half of the book, I keep asking myself, “When is something going to happen?”
We go through Hugh’s day, share his routine, but it’s more like a journal with his (inaccurate) observations on the town as he lives his life than it is a story. We spend agonizingly long days and then weeks and then months watching Hugh walk around and observe things and telling us about them.
About halfway through the book, at a point where, if I had not been reading this for a review I probably would have given up on the book, we finally get to a story of some sorts. The conflict finally begins to reveal itself. The last few chapters of the book, when we discover that Hugh and Iris both have been attracted to each other for longer than they care to admit, when we learn that Chase (the dead brother/boyfriend) had secrets he kept and wasn’t the perfect image they have held him to be in their memories, and Hugh finally begins to unravel ten year’s worth of misunderstandings… those last chapters should have been the entire story, but expanded. When I read the last chapters, from about page 200 forward (and there’s only a bit over 300 pages total), I said, “This is what the story should have been all along.”
Unfortunately, once I arrived at that point, the author was already closing the story. We spend pages and chapters of agonizing back story and no plot or action to get to the part where there is finally story, and then the book is over. Very disappointing. What really stands out as most disappointing is the fact that there WAS a good story here, hidden in all the rambling observations; it just didn’t unfold like it should have. Beyond the plodding story, the dialogue seemed unrealistic and slightly expositional in many places. The editing was not as aggressive as I feel it could have been, with rambling and tangents that a good developmental editor should have redlined. The old rule of: if it doesn’t make us feel something or further the plot, remove it-should have been followed here. Some of the chapters are in the present storyline and other chapters flip to the past, without any indication that it has done so, so that we don’t know until we see the dead brother still alive in the story that we’re in the past. This flip-flopping present and past with no rhyme or reason makes for confusing reading. That, along with stock image cover art that I found used nearly identically on a small press book from a different publisher, and there was little to impress me about this particular book.
However, there was raw potential here. There was a good story behind all of this and Mr. Baron, had he sat with this story longer and really gotten to know these people in this particular story universe, I think could have done much better with this story and plot. I know he could have, because I saw the quality of writing and understanding and depth and empathy that was revealed in his first novel WHEN YOU WENT AWAY. Because of this, I still eagerly look forward to his future novels, of which I understand he has one set to release next month, even if I found myself disappointed in this one. I highly recommend the first novel by this author and hope his future novels continue and that CROSSING THE BRIDGE was simply a bit of an anomaly.
Update: Having read Mr. Baron’s third novel, SPINNING, by Michael Baron, I conclude that CROSSING THE BRIDGE was simply not Baron’s strongest work. SPINNING deserves and will receive its own review, but it was an excellent way to come back from a less-than-excellent book prior to it. SPINNING is a must-read.