That Old Cape Magic – Book Review

“Good heavens, no, it wasn’t you. What kept us together was ‘That Old Cape Magic.’ Remember how we used to sing it every year on the Sagamore?” She then turned to Bartleby. “One glorious month, each summer,” she explained. “Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of misery.” Then back to Griffin. “But that’s about par for most marriages, I think you’ll find.” The I think you’ll find, he understood, was of course meant to suggest that in her view, his own marital arithmetic was likely to be much the same. – from That Old Cape Magic, page 7 –

Jack Griffin is middle-aged, married for thirty-four years to Joy, and driving around the Cape with his father’s ashes in his car’s wheel well as he contemplates his childhood, his unruly (and often emotionally absent) parents, and his own marriage. By the end of the weekend, everything will have changed – suddenly and unexpectedly. A year later, he finds himself on the coast of Maine at his daughter’s wedding, separated from his wife, now carrying two urns in the trunk of his car, and unable to turn off the ironic and sarcastic voice of his dead mother which plays inside his head. Richard Russo’s iconic novel is filled with humor, bittersweet nostalgia, and wise observations of marriage and love.

Russo is a genius when it comes to developing character. Griff is a man who has finally come to rest in Connecticut, after giving up a career as a screen writer in Los Angeles. He settles into his job as a college professor, and he and his wife Joy buy their dream house and nurture their daughter, Laura. But Griff has a lot of unfinished business – especially regarding his relationship with his parents which has come to inform his life and his marriage. Russo employs a lot of irony and humor in unraveling Griff and his parents. Griffin’s mother is outrageously elitist and narcissistic. When she retires from her position as a professor at a small, Indiana university, she stuns everyone with her farewell speech.

“Unlike my colleagues,” she said directly into the microphone, the only speaker of the evening to recognize that fundamental necessity, “I’ll be brief and honest. I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the vast majority of our students, as are we.” Then she returned to her seat and patted Griffin’s hand, as if to say, There, now; that wasn’t so bad, was it? – from That Old Cape Magic, page 20 –

On the other hand, Griff’s father is a bit bumbling and prone to having a wandering eye when it comes to other women. He also has a propensity for automobile accidents. His car is perpetually damaged, the trunk secured with a bungee cord.

Griffin, raised as an only child, seems dwarfed by his bigger-than-life parents. His struggle to find his own place in the world, secure his own marriage, and come to terms with the ambivalent love he has for his difficult parents is what drives the narrative in That Old Cape Magic.

Russo’s writing in That Old Cape Magic is, well, magical. I found myself completely absorbed in the lives of the characters, wanting them to find redemption, hoping that all the many strands of their lives would weave together again. Russo does what so many writers struggle to do – namely, make you care about what happens to the characters which people the story. Russo’s strength lies in his razor sharp observations of life with all its subtle quirks and twists, especially middle-aged life when individuals begin to look back on the paths they’ve chosen and wonder whether they have made the right decisions; to contemplate the plans they have mapped out and question the outcomes.

Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming. – from That Old Cape Magic, page 248 –

Readers who love literary fiction and who appreciate irony, humor and deftly developed characters, will love this novel.

Highly recommended.

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  1. I bought this one as soon as it came out and it’s been sitting on my shelf since. Your review convinces me I need to pick it up sooner rather than later. Thanks for the review!

  2. Huh … wow. This one was a DNF for me, but now I’m wondering if I gave it a fair chance. (I was listening on audio.) I really wanted to like it much more than I did but just found the mother absolutely insufferable.

    Glad you liked it, though. (And this is one of the reasons why I love book blogs, because of the different takes on the same book!)

  3. I’ve never tried Russo’s writing, but it sounds phenomenal. I love it when I really get to know a character like that.

    • JoAnn on April 3, 2011 at 06:44

    Russo is one of my favorites. I loved this, too!

    • Wendy on April 3, 2011 at 06:53

    Swapna: I bought this book when it first came out as well – and it took an online book club to get me to finally pick it up. But, Russo is wonderful. Hope you enjoy the book.

    Melissa: So sorry you couldn’t finish this one. But, I wonder if reading it would be better than audio. I loved the mother – LOL – yes, she was annoying, elitist, etc…but what a great character. Like you, I enjoy the varied opinions on books 🙂

    Kathy: Oh, you should try Russo some day – he writes character exceptionally well.

    JoAnn: Glad to hear!!!

  4. I read one book from Russo a long time ago, and I wasn’t really that fond of it. This one sounds like it would be much better, and I particularly like the quote that shares the speech. I may have to give old Russo another try! Thanks for the deft and interesting review!

    • Wendy on April 4, 2011 at 07:25

    Heather: Which book did you read? I’m surprised you didn’t like Russo’s writing given the books you generally gravitate toward. I hope you’ll give him another shot. I find him really funny and very astute re: the human condition – but, most of his characters tend to be middle-aged and he always seems to have a theme of guys and their fathers…so perhaps that is something not everyone will relate to…

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