Monday, August 31, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Hardcover, 261 pages
Knopf , August 2009
ISBN-13: 9780375414961
contemporary fiction
Very Highly Recommended

Synopsis from cover:
...Richard Russo gives us the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.

Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father’s ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura’s best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents’ respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that’s now thirty years old and has largely come true.....
That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter’s new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written.
My Thoughts:

I heard Russo talking about how That Old Cape Magic came to be. Starting out as a short story, it slowly developed and grew beyond that into a novella, and then eventually into a book. I think Russo would easily concede that this novel isn't Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, as many detractors of That Old Cape Magic like to point out, but I also don't believe that's what Russo was trying to accomplish when writing That Old Cape Magic. I've enjoyed all of Russo's novels and this, his most recent novel, was no exception.

Russo is a terrific writer. He knows what he is doing so it would be a mistake to fault him for not developing all the characters fully. That's not the point here. This is a story about Jack Griffin and, in relationship to him, family, and the entanglements and frustrations that are always present whether or not they are openly acknowledged. As current events charge forward, Griffin reminisces about the past, contemplates his memories, and considers his current life. Russo's character Jack Griffin, as a middle age man going through a crisis, has a greater sense of humor than many other similar characters, like Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, and this made the novel much more enjoyable.

I do think that a case could be made that That Old Cape Magic will be appreciated more by readers with a little bit more maturity under their belts and maybe a long marriage. It may give them a deeper understanding of the character and his thoughts. Things look very different at 50 than they did at 30.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


Though the digital clock on the bedside table in his hotel room read 5:17, Jack Griffin, suddenly wide awake, knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. He’d allowed himself to drift off too early the night before. On the heels of wakefulness came an unpleasant realization, that what he hadn’t wanted to admit yesterday, even to himself, was now all too clear in the solitary, predawn dark. He should have swallowed his petulance and waited the extra day for Joy. opening

In any event his wife’s suggestion that he go on without her had seemed less than sincere, which was why he decided to call her bluff. “All right,” he said, “that’s what I’ll do,” expecting her to say, Fine, if it means that much to you, I’ll reschedule the meetings. But she hadn’t said that, even when she saw him packing his bag, and so he’d discovered a truth that other men probably knew already— that once you’d packed a bag in front of a woman there was no possibility of unpacking, or of not going and taking the damn bag with you. pg. 4

Zipping along Route 6, Griffin realized he was humming “That Old Black Magic,” the song his parents had sung ironically—both university English professors, that’s how they did most things— every time they crossed the Sagamore, substituting Cape for black. When he was growing up, they’d spent part of every summer on the Cape. He could always tell what kind of year it had been, moneywise, by when and where they stayed. pg. 6

While he roamed the beach unattended, full of youthful energy and freedom, his parents spent sunny afternoons lying on the sand with their “guilty pleasures,” books they’d have been embarrassed to admit to their colleagues they’d ever heard of. pg. 9

Later in the month, on a rainy day, they’d go so far as to look at a house or two at the low end of the Can’t Afford It category, but the realtors always intuited at a glance that Griffin’s parents were just tire kickers. The house they wanted was located in a future only they could see. For people who dealt largely in dreams, his father was fond of observing, realtors were a surprisingly unromantic bunch, like card counters in a Vegas casino. pg. 10

Joy wouldn't arrive until evening, probably late, and the sooner he got to the B and B where she'd booked a room for the wedding, the sooner he'd feel compelled to open the trunk of the convertible, which contained, in addition to his travel bag and his bulging satchel, the urn bearing his father's ashes, which he pledged to scatter over the weekend. He wasn't sure that disposing of cremated midwestern academics in Massachusetts waters was strictly legal, and would have preferred Joy be there for moral support (and as a lookout). pg. 11

Stories worked the same way....A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation. pg. 67


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I LOVED this book. His parents (especially his mom was something huh)? LOL

Great review!

Lori L said...

I loved it too! Don't all families have at least one character like Griffin's mother? LOL! It was quite surprising to read reviews faulting Russo for it not being Empire Falls, Straight Man, or Bridge of Sighs - all novels I loved too, but I also enjoyed That Old Cape Magic.