Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic (2009)

I only came to this book because of its title. The magic completely worked, at least for the title. I have been to Cape Cod as a teenager and it was such a memorable summer that decades afterwards, the simple reference to the Cape is enough to make me read it. I had never heard of Russo before.

It was a kind of disappointment that the book was so little about Cape Cod really. It’s about a middle-aged man’s midlife crisis, his life choices, his marriage and his relation to his difficult parents. Not my usual cup of tea, I must say.

It takes place at the Cape at two key moments of Jack Griffin’s life, the first being the wedding of his daughter’s best friend, where he realizes how his marriage with Joy is unravelling, the other for his own daughter’s wedding the year after, where he may – or may not – find  peace with his wife and deceased parents. In between, Griffin learns that he may be a lot more like his parents than he ever meant to be, and he must deal with that too.

The Cape is the place where Griffin’s childhood summers took place, an ideal paradise of perfection and happiness. His parents were English professors from Ivy League universities who never got a position on the East coast but in Midwestern universities, a move they resented like a shame, a constant grievance and an exile. They were difficult, bitter people who fought in their careers and marriage, but every year during Griffin’s childhood, they rented a house on Cape Cod for a month of promised bliss.

It’s a many-faceted book, with numerous accurate and perceptive portrays, bitter parts, comic bits, even slapstick scenes (a rehearsal dinner degenerates into a full-out broil, most guests ending up in the infirmary), a voice that manages to be sometimes nostalgic, sometimes ironic. The result is neat and quite believable (even in the most improbable ways), but somehow I never quite connected with it all. It’s not the book’s fault, it’s mine: I’m not an American middle-aged man, and somehow the novel struck me as typically American.

Yet as I am writing this sentence I realize how untrue it is. Joy’s family may be typically American, but Griffin’s parents is all but American: their state of constant discontent, their snobbish criticism and class conscience, their inability to enjoy happy moments, their comical skills to sabotage everything (in particular apartment rentals) is perhaps more French (Parisian? Left-bank intellectual?) than anything.

I laughed and followed Griffin with interest, but I wouldn’t like spending time with a real-life Griffin. I found him too… what? too self-centred, too immature, perhaps too true to life. For a novel that was far from my usual fare, I got a lot more than I expected. But still, I would rather take another trip to Cape Cod myself…

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3 thoughts on “Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic (2009)

  1. Thank you for your review, which reminded me of the book. I too enjoyed the book in parts. I think it was a bit disjointed, combining his boyhood experiences with his present discontents and ending with the comic scene at the wedding. Russo’s other books have moved me more. I particularly enjoyed Nobody’s Fool.

  2. I think you did very well here, especially as it’s not your cup of tea. The struggle with academic, intellectual (frankish?) parents is more thorough in Russo’s pure Academic Novel/comedy, Straight Man, which is a more ambitious book and his own spin on Amis’ Lucky Jim. Has its midlife crisis and purposely dull, banal Americana ennui, so it’s probably not for you. Cape Magic is quick and breezy and painless, at least.

  3. Thanks for this helpful review. In my experience, all of Russo’s novels seem to involve middle-aged American men’s mid-life crises. I suppose he pulls that off with great comic effect, but I , like you, haven’t ever really connected to the books. I suppose I don’t have a lot of appreciation for the sorts of things middle-aged American (white) men tend to do in their mid-life crises. 🙂

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