"That Old Cape Magic" by Richard Russo: Condemned to repeat his parents' mistakes
Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" is the best-selling author's story of Jack Griffin, a man in midlife-crisis mode, making the same mistakes his parents made and hoping that a sojourn on Cape Cod will fix what ails him.
Special to The Seattle Times
"That Old Cape Magic"
by Richard Russo
Random House, 261 pp., $25.95
Richard Russo couldn't write a bad book if his life depended on it, but what he has written in "That Old Cape Magic" is one considerably less enjoyable than his Pulitzer-winning "Empire Falls" or "Nobody's Fool," the most delightful of his works.
It's probably unfair to always measure this talented, prolific author against his most acclaimed books. (Even Lance Armstrong gets cheered for coming in third place.) "That Old Cape Magic" is undeniably a clever, intelligent novel, but for those of us who were in heaven as Russo wove his earlier small-town fiction, this one feels underfed. Russo still favors his multiphrase sentences, yet the overall style is leaner, the characters' mental dithering less layered.
It's the story of Jack Griffin, husband and father at midlife, his marriage unraveling, faults hanging out for all to see. Russo captures this undignified stage of life so well that I made tsk-tsk sounds most of the time I was reading. (Buck up, man!)
Russo also deserves credit for facing down what must be the most fraught theme in marital-rumination history: How does my parents' marriage shape my own relationship?
When Griffin married Joy, the wife of 30 years he is steadily alienating when we meet him, his irascible mother and feckless father were both bitter, middle-aged academics. Just like Griffin himself, now a 55-year-old professor and languished screenwriter.
He is a chip off both blocks, and here Russo is at his cleverest, skewering academic politics and hapless men with precision. After Griffin reaches manhood, his parents divorce. His mother appears destined to thrive, at first.
"But his mother's self-reinvention, a bold and for a time successful stroke, had ultimately failed. When the university, mostly at her suggestion and direction, created the Gender Studies Program, she of course expected to be named its chair, but instead they'd recruited a transgendered scholar from, of all places, Utah, and that had been the last straw."
His father goes downhill quickly after the divorce, lurching into a relationship with a student, the bovine Claudia, whom he marries and whose dissertation he ghostwrites.
"And so it was that this distinguished professor woke up one morning to the realization that while his wife had retooled herself as an adventurous gender specialist, he'd reinvented himself as a fool."
The glue, as it were, between Griffin and his wife, and between the parents and son, is Cape Cod, beloved site of his childhood summer vacations and object of the elder Griffins' retirement dreams.
Despite their need to find new digs each summer (the result of their hilariously horrible care-taking of rentals) and their scathing division of all real estate into Wouldn't Have It As a Gift and Can't Afford It, Griffin's parents love the Cape like nothing else. Their son is drawn there just as inexorably. Get to the Cape's embrace and all will be well.
If ever there was a geographic place deserving top billing as a character, it's that bent arm of land sticking out into the cold Atlantic. As a device for romantic ideals, it's hard to beat.
When a friend's wedding draws Griffin, Joy and daughter Laura to the Cape, Griffin is caught in the undertow of sorting out his feelings about his parents, one of whom is now rolling around in a cremation urn in his car trunk.
Russo's strengths are his eye for the humor in life's more disheartening moments, and his ability to make us cheer for the scofflaw, the naive, the nitwit, the philanderer. His story lines veer off into small, improbable, entertaining detours.
In "That Old Cape Magic," it's a bit harder to rah-rah for the fellow at the center of the tale, and the detours are less scenic. Could be that he hits too close to home for a middle-aged reader, but the outcome is what it is. Russo fans: Don't skip it, but don't expect the same fabulous fiction.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a Portland writer and native New Englander who has had both bad rentals and soul-restoring moments on Cape Cod.
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