by Richard Russo
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
To borrow an expression from my kids, Richard Russo rocks! Back in 2002, I picked up a copy of Empire Falls and instantly became fan, recommending the book to anyone who would listen. Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs only reinforced that enthusiasm so, of course, I was at the bookstore within days (well, maybe hours) of That Old Cape Magic's release.
In his latest book, Russo treats us to some of the familiar themes and character types he has done so well in his previous books. Two weddings, a year apart, serve as the framework for That Old Cape Magic. Jack Griffin, a screenwriter/professor in his late 50's, is struggling to come to terms with his life, his marriage, and the role parental influence has played.
"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."
Jack's Ivy-pedigreed parents spent their careers as frustrated professors, languishing at second-rate colleges in the Midwest. They lived for their annual summer escape to Cape Cod and found "That Old Cape Magic" was enough to sustain them for another year:
"After dinner, as darkness fell, they took a long drive with no particular destination in mind, as they sometimes did their last night on the Cape, breathing it all in, filling their lungs with the salt air, as if they could carry it back with them to breath in the Mid-fucking-west." (page 62)
Jack, as his own marriage begins to unravel, realizes that "even as he rejected their [his parents] values, he'd allowed many of their bedrock assumptions - that happiness is a place you could visit but never own, for instance - to burrow deep. He'd dismissed their snobbery and unearned sense of entitlement, but swallowed whole the rationale on which it had been based... Joy's [his wife] contention that his parents, not hers, were the true intruders on their marriage had seemed ludicrous on the face of it, but he saw now that it was true. They were mucking about still, his living mother, exiled in the Mid-fucking-west (justice, that) but using seagulls as surrogates, his deceased father, reduced to ashes and bits of bone, still refusing to take his leave." (page 158)
There is always a soft spot that develops in my heart as I read about Russo's flawed male characters. I spent one of the most enjoyable afternoons of the summer sitting in an Adirondack chair by the lake reading the first half of this book. My plan was to finish it the following day, but one weekend wasn't enough time to spend with Jack, Joy, their daughter, and parents. This was a book to be savored, and I slowed down to make it last several more days.
Russo get his characters right every time. Their vulnerability, tempered with just the right amount of bravado, makes them wonderfully believable and, flawed as they are, they manage to muddle through. That Old Cape Magic couldn't have been better!