Wednesday, April 21, 2010

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

That Old Cape Magic
by Richard Russo

Is it inevitable that we become our parents? How much of that inevitability comes down to genetics or conditioning? In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo ponders the mysteries of family relations, marriage and career. No matter how hard we try to run away from our childhoods, the past continually informs the present, and the conditions of our happiness change in ways we might never expect.

“It’s a shame you can’t say yes to one person without saying no to another.”

Jack Griffin has a life many would envy — a beautiful New England home, a wife of over thirty years, a happy grown-up daughter and a university professor position that frees his summers. So why does his marriage feel so troubled? And why has he been driving around with his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car for the better part of a year? Now, visiting Cape Cod for his daughter’s friend’s wedding, he can’t help but reflect on his parents’ marriage and the vacations they used to take during his childhood.

His parents, both university professors in the “Mid-fucking-West” (as they always referred to it), had a tempestuous relationship, full of bickering, moving around, affairs and the idea that they were always working well below their deserved station in life. His father, prone to P.G. Wodehouse and pretty graduate students, and his mother, critical of anyone who hadn’t completed graduate work, only seemed to get along during their vacations to the Cape. They would dream aloud of one day owning a place there, but would continually complain that the real estate was either too expensive or “Wouldn’t have it as a gift.”

As an adult, Griffin’s form of rebellion came at first by working as a screenwriter, living in L.A. with his wife, Joy, who never attended graduate school. It is Joy’s dream of having an old house, being closer to her family, and both of them having more serious, steady jobs that bring them back to the East Coast, as per an agreement made on their honeymoon. Griffin is not a fan of her family and finds them overbearing, albeit in a different way than his own parents, but he agrees that this is the best, most responsible decision for them all.

Before he knows it, he’s at his daughter’s wedding in Maine, both he and his wife have brought dates to the occasion, and he’s now hauling around both parents’ ashes in his trunk. Why can’t he let go? And is this what he really wanted?

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.

I picked up this book mainly because Richard Russo was coming to town for the Get Lit! festival, and he was one of those authors on my “mean to read” list. Though Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Bridge of Sighs were what came to mind first during my library perusal, I discovered the selection understandably picked over in the week leading up to his appearance. That Old Cape Magic is his latest book, which is as good as any place to begin reading.

Russo writes in an honest way, full of detail that captures the beauty of the East Coast, without resorting to flowery, overly romanticized descriptions. Griffin and Joy’s parents are fully rendered nightmare in-laws, and Griffin’s personal crises feel authentic, despite my not being a middle-aged man.

Perhaps my only quibble is with the representation of Griffin’s daughter, Laura. She’s a little too nice, a little too doting for an adult, and Griffin is privy to information about her personal life that doesn’t seem like something a daughter would reveal to her father. I don’t know — maybe some daughters would, but I know my dad and I wouldn’t have conversations regarding virginity and the instant message conversations had with a lovelorn former neighbor.

Still, it’s easy to see why Richard Russo is Pulitzer-worthy. While I may not have fallen in love with the book, I enjoyed it well enough to where I’ll still look out for the other three books for which I originally searched. I’ve been on such a good run with my book choices lately that perhaps it’s only by comparison that I’m more ambivalent towards That Old Cape Magic. Maybe if I’d read this after my painful foray into chick-lit, I’d feel differently.

I happened to briefly run into Richard Russo at the Hotel Lusso last weekend, and I told him I was working on this book. He told me that he hoped I enjoyed it, to which I now respond, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Book #25/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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