That Old Cape Magic (Review)

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That Old Cape Magic
Richard Russo, 2009
272 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
December 2009

Jack Griffin is spending more time with his father now that he's dead than when he was alive. Fact is, he's been carrying his father's ashes around in his car trunk for the past nine months...and can't seem to part with them. A nice piece of symbolism, funny, if a little obvious.

To make short order of the synopsis (because there's so much more to write about with this book): Griffin is in the midst of a full-blown midlife crisis—dissatisfied in his career (college professor) and his once-perfect marriage. He's stuck in the doldrums and trying to figure a way out.

Richard Russo does here what he does so well in other books: he limns the lives of his heroes by knotting them together with the past and with a large array of characters, all of whom are muddling through. In every novel, marriages are examined, childhoods plumbed, parents evoked. It's always done with brilliant one-liners and a rich, deeply readable prose style.

Cape Magic is no different—just shorter, and maybe funnier. Okay, predictable...and, yes, a bit pat at the end. But no matter, it's thoroughly engaging and hard to put down.

The most indelible characters are Griffin's parents, academics, who hate where they teach (Indiana) and believe they deserve better (Ivy League...or anywhere in New England rather than the"Mid-f**king-west" where they're stuck). They're miserable—and miserable to one another, to their colleagues, and to anyone they come across, including at times their son. They're so awful, they're hilarious.

And so awful that Griffin wants to put as much distance as he can between them and himself. But funny thing happened to Griffin on the way to mid-life: he ends up more like his parents than he realizes. Joy, his wonderful, life-embracing wife, knows this—and thus we get a full-blown domestic disturbance.

There is so much funny writing here that to quote any of it would take...a book. But don't mistake Russo's humor for superficiality. His comedy, some of it slapstick, overlies a mordancy, a humor that hits the mark and penetrates.

Then there are his characters, recognizable because they're mirror-like in reflecting basic truths. Which truths? This one for starters—life is what we get, not what we want. But if we can want what we get...well, you know where this is going. Anyway, to accept with grace what you end up with is no mean feat. Not for anyone, certainly not for Griffin. Don't miss this book.

See our Reading Guide for That Old Cape Magic.

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