That Old Cape Magic

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"Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father's ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura's best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents' respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro

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Overview

"Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father's ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura's best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents' respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that's now thirty years old and has largely come true. He'd left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they'd moved into an old house full of character; and they'd started a family. Check, check and check." "But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura's, on the coast of Maine, Griffin's chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?" That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter's new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has.

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  • That Old Cape Magic
    That Old Cape Magic  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Thirty years ago on their Cape Cod honeymoon, Griffin and Joy half-playfully drafted "the Great Truro Accord," their domestic equivalent of the Mayflower Compact. In the decades since, they had achieved the goals they had so ambitiously enumerated. Now, returning to that scene, they attend the wedding of their daughter's best friend, little knowing that their New England getaway will change both their lives in most unexpected ways. A supple novel about middle-aged relationships at the cusp.
Ron Charles
Although this is a much smaller canvas than Russo has worked on in recent years, what That Old Cape Magic lacks in breadth and plot momentum it makes up for with psychological nuance about the ties that bind—and snap. It's a marvelous portrayal of the strands of affection and irritation that run through a family, entangling in-laws and children's crushes and even old friends…The shelf of books about middle-aged guys going through midlife crises is long, of course, but Russo threads more comedy through this introspective genre than we get from John Updike, Richard Ford or Chang-rae Lee. He's a master of the comic quip and the ridiculous situation.
—The Washington Post
Roxana Robinson
Russo has written six previous novels…and we've come to expect certain things: a complicated skein of plotlines, deep connection to place, and affection for the large cast of characters who blunder and struggle through his pages. That Old Cape Magic does not disappoint…Family, family, family is the subject of That Old Cape Magic. The family is where the best—and the worst—things happen to us. Whether we embrace it or try to escape it, the family is at the center of our lives. Along with that voracious little worm of dissatisfaction, munching away. Which will triumph? Richard Russo roots for the family, but he knows the worm is there.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Crafting a dense, flashback-filled narrative that stutters across two summer outings to New England (and as many weddings), Russo (Empire Falls) convincingly depicts a life coming apart at the seams, but the effort falls short of the literary magic that earned him a Pulitzer. A professor in his 50s who aches to go back to screenwriting, Jack Griffin struggles to divest himself of his parents. Lugging around, first, his father's, then both his parents' urns in the trunk of his convertible, he hopes to find an appropriate spot to scatter their ashes while juggling family commitments—his daughter's wedding, a separation from his wife. Indeed, his parents—especially his mother, who calls her son incessantly before he starts hearing her from beyond the grave—occupy the narrative like capricious ghosts, and Griffin inherits “the worst attributes of both.” Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered—Griffin wading into the surf to try to scatter his father's ashes, his wheelchair-bound father-in-law plummeting off a ramp and into a yew—the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo's earlier work. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Joy and Jack Griffin head to Cape Cod to attend a friend's wedding, where their daughter Laura announces her own engagement. Sensing the malaise in their 30-year marriage, the Griffins decide to reconnect by visiting the B & B where they once honeymooned. Their arrival in separate vehicles seems symbolic of the discord in their hearts and minds. Jack, still coming to terms with his father's death and bristling at his mother's constant criticism, feels restless in his career as a college professor, wondering whether he should have left a lucrative screenwriting gig in L.A. Joy, chafing at Jack's implicit displeasure with her sunny disposition and maddening family, longs for an empathetic listener. Russo lovingly explores the deceptive nature of memory as each exquisitely drawn character attempts to deconstruct the family myths that inform their relationships. VERDICT The Griffins may not find magic on old Cape Cod, but readers will. Those who savored Russo's long, languid novels (e.g., Pulitzer winner Empire Falls) may be surprised by this one's rapid pace, but Russo's familiar compassion for the vicissitudes of the human condition shines through. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A change of pace from Pulitzer-winning author Russo (Bridge of Sighs, 2007, etc.). In contrast to his acclaimed novels about dying towns in the Northeast, the author's slapstick satire of academia (Straight Man, 1997) previously seemed like an anomaly. Now it has a companion of sorts, though Russo can't seem to decide whether his protagonist is comic or tragic. Maybe both. The son of two professors who were unhappy with each other and their lot in life, Jack Griffin vowed not to follow in their footsteps, instead becoming a hack screenwriter in Los Angeles. Then he leaves that career to become a cinema professor and moves back East with his wife Joy. Most of the novel takes place during two weddings a year apart: one on Cape Cod, where Jack had endured annual summer vacations and convinced Joy to spend their honeymoon; the other in Maine, where Joy had wanted to honeymoon. Plenty of flashbacks concerning the families of each spouse seem on the surface to present very different models for marriage, and there is an account of the year between the weddings that shows their relationship changing significantly. It isn't enough that Jack feels trapped by his familial past; he carries his parents' ashes in his trunk, can't bear to scatter them and carries on conversations with his late mother that eventually become audible. Will Jack and Joy be able to sustain their marriage? Will their daughter succumb to the fate of her parents, just as Jack and Joy have? Observes Jack, "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."Readable, as always with this agreeable and gifted author. First printing of200,000. Author tour to Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, New England, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Maine, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C.
From the Publisher
“Suffused with Russo’s signature comic sensibility, and with insights, by turns tender and tough, about human frailty, forbearance, fortitude, and fervor.” –Glenn C. Altschuler, The Boston Globe

“Family, family, family is the subject of That Old Cape Magic [with] a complicated skein of plotlines, deep connection to place, and affection for the large cast of characters who blunder and struggle through his pages.” –Roxanna Robinson, The New York Times Book Review

“A touching portrait of smart people spinning their wheels.” –Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune

“Utterly charming. If you always cry at weddings, you’ll cry at this–and laugh, too…Russo has written a novel for people who are terrified of becoming their parents, which is to say for everybody [and it] seems especially intimate, a dyspeptic romantic comedy from a Pulitzer Prize winner who catches the bittersweet humor of our common neuroses…It’s a marvelous portrayal of the strands of affection and irritation that run through a family, entangling in-laws and children’s crushes and even old friends.” –Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“A comic yet thoughtful take on marriage…But amid the humor, it raises questions about the complications we inherit and the ones we build for ourselves.” –Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

“When we finish reading That Old Cape Magic, we know we’ll start rereading it soon. And that the characters will come to mind at the most unpredictable times. We will stay on speaking terms with them more than we do with some of our real-life cousins.” –Betsy Willeford, The Miami Herald

“A recipe for laying ghosts to rest [and] a tale about love requited and unrequited. Finally, it is a big-hearted book about real, complex relationships that are an utterly fascinating mix of the two.” –Rosemary Herbert, Bangor Daily News

“His most intimate yet: an astute portrait of a 30-year marriage, in all its promise and pain…His honest, heartfelt storytelling–like a cooling breeze off a certain New England shoreline–has never felt fresher.” –Andrew Abrahams, People

“Wryly funny…An impressively expansive analysis of familial dynamics between not only spouses but also in-laws, parents and children…It’s Russo all the same, and his many fans are sure to savor the journey.” –Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

“In one of America’s most mythic landscapes, Russo details one man’s shaky first steps out of his past and into self-knowledge with good humor, generosity, and an open heart.” –Pam Houston, O, The Oprah Magazine

The Barnes & Noble Review
Middle-aged disappointment is a tough sell. It's a subject that can easily fall into bitterness, dreariness, unattractive self-pity. And like everything else, it's probably easier to deal with on summer vacation.

In That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo takes on the novel of middle-aged reassessment, the marital breakup novel, the academic novel, and, what the hell, tosses in a bit of the Hollywood novel, as well. What's remarkable is that the thing holds up as well as it does. There are places where it could be funnier, places where Russo fails in the novelist's duty to go for the empathetic instead of the merely sharp surface observation. But he's a smooth and, when he's at his best, rueful writer. Reading That Old Cape Magic, you feel yourself sliding into the life changes Russo describes as easily as his protagonist, Jack Griffin.

Jack is a former Hollywood screenwriter who, when his career began to decline, made the switch to the less lucrative but steadier world of academia. He and his wife, Joy, have settled down into a house in Connecticut and yearly summer escapes to Cape Cod. That Old Cape Magic begins with Jack, solo, driving to the Cape for the wedding of his daughter's best friend. The trip prompts memories of his own childhood summers at the Cape in the company of his parents, embittered academics never able to get over the resentment of spending their careers in midwestern schools instead of the prestigious ivy-laden institutions of the East.

As Russo lays it out, Jack's childhood makes a pretty good case for the pleasures to be found in being an orphan. His parents' contempt for each other is only exceeded by their contempt for everyone else. When one set of summer neighbors, a couple who teaches junior high school, introduces themselves, Jack's parents react as you imagine Caruso might if told by Clay Aiken, "I'm a singer, too."

In the novel's present frame, Jack's father is dead, but his mother, widowed again, still finds targets for her perpetual scorn in the series of nursing homes in which she lives -- none, of course, worthy of being graced by her. Maybe the middling who fancy themselves elite are an easy target (anyone who's ever spent time in a faculty meeting has probably, at one point, thought, There's a novel in this). But it's hard to resist barbs at characters as monstrous as these.

It's also hard to allow them the space they take up in the novel. Russo is trying to get at how parents like this cast a shadow over their child's life, even deep into the adult years. And Jack's response -- keeping Joy and their daughter, Laura, as far from these grandparents as they can, and ignoring their disparaging attitude towards his decision to make his living as a screenwriter -- seems eminently sensible. Russo understands that what we grasp rationally does not necessarily translate into rational behavior. Still, it's hard to care for Jack's reluctance to let go, symbolized by his father's ashes, still in his strangely dutiful son's car trunk a year or so after the old man's death. You wish that instead of worrying about the proper spot on the Cape to scatter the remains, he'd find a highway rest spot and leave what's left of the old bastard in the dumpster.

Russo is much more successful at detailing the way in which Jack and Joy's marriage veers imperceptibly, and perhaps irrevocably, off course. That Old Cape Magic takes place over two summer trips, each centered on a wedding. A year after Jack and Joy attend the wedding of Laura's friend, they are back on the Cape attending her wedding. Only now, they're separated and have -- perhaps lastingly, perhaps not -- found new partners.

It sounds like mingy praise to say of Russo that he has never been a chore to read. But just take a minute to consider the kind of subjects he's tackled. His stories of working-class life in rusted-out small towns (in novels like Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls) escape the dank hopelessness that often pervades fiction in that setting. There's none of the insistent, numbing dreariness that makes Raymond Carver's fiction what we talk about when we talk about gloom. And in this novel and his collection of stories The Whore's Child, Russo's focus on the middle class manages to keep an air of lightness. Russo would likely feel at home with Thorne Smith's Topper, the basis for the movie and television series, and which, beneath its whimsical premise, may be the most perfectly pitched novel about middle-class dissatisfaction in America.

That Old Cape Magic isn't up to the standards of that terrific entertainer. But Russo understands the importance of the comic in this subject; there's a willingness to amuse in his approach, which is no small thing, and that willingness is what glides over the grinding gears when the story switches among its various forms.

Ultimately, books about the middle-age blues either end on a note of bitterness or an acceptance of compromise. The latter is where Russo brings this novel down for a landing. And yet I'm not sure it's the right compromise. Given the choice between the demonstrably unsatisfying but reassuringly familiar, and the unfamiliar but reasonably satisfying, Russo takes the first path. He ends on a note of hope but also, I think, a failure of nerve. It's as if Russo is saying that, past a certain age, we're foolish to embark on new adventures, even modest ones that offer the tempered pleasures that come later on in life. Maybe if Russo were the kind of writer it's a chore to read, we'd believe Jack's decision. It's a compliment to say that Russo has too much life in him for it to ring true. --Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor has written for numerous publications including Salon, the Boston Phoenix, and The New York Times Book Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375414961
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/4/2009
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Russo

Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and in Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.

Biography

Prizewinning author Richard Russo is regarded by many critics as the best writer about small-town America since Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. "He doesn't over-sentimentalize [small towns]," said Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's "Fresh Air." Nor does he belittle the dreams and hardships of his working-class characters. "I come from a blue-collar family myself and I think he gets the class interactions; he just really nails class in his novels," said Corrigan.

When Russo left his own native small town in upstate New York, it was with hopes of becoming a college professor. But during his graduate studies, he began to have second thoughts about the academic life. While finishing up his doctorate, he took a creative writing class; and a new career path opened in front of him.

Russo's first novel set the tone for much of his later work. The story of an ailing industrial town and the interwoven lives of its inhabitants, Mohawk won critical praise for its witty, engaging style. In subsequent books, he has brought us a dazzling cast of characters, mostly working-class men and women who are struggling with the problems of everyday life (poor health, unemployment, mounting bills, failed marriages) in dilapidated, claustrophobic burghs that have -- like their denizens -- seen better days. In 2001, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, a brilliant, tragicomic set-piece that explores past and present relationships in a once-thriving Maine town whose textile mill and shirt factory have gone bust.

Russo's vision of America would be bleak, except for the wit and optimism he infuses into his stories. Even when his characters are less than lovable, they are funny, rueful, and unfailingly human. "There's a version of myself that I still see in a kind of alternative universe and it's some small town in upstate New York or someplace like that," Russo said in an interview. That ability to envision himself in the bars and diners of small-town America has served him well. "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo's tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life," said the fiction writer Annie Proulx. "And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are."

Good To Know

In 1994, Russo's book Nobody's Fool was made into a movie starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis. Newman also starred in the 1998 movie Twilight, for which Russo wrote the screenplay. Russo now divides his time between writing fiction and writing for the movies.

When he wrote his first books, Russo was employed full-time as a college teacher, and would stop at the local diner between classes to work on his novels. After the success of Nobody's Fool (the book and the movie), he was able to quit teaching -- but he still likes to write in spots such as the Camden Deli. It's "a less lonely way to write," he told USA Today. "I'm less self-conscious when it's not so quiet."

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    1. Hometown:
      Gloversville, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 15, 1949
    2. Place of Birth:
      Johnstown, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Arizona, 1967; Ph.D., University of Arizona, 1979; M.F.A., University of Arizona, 1980

Read an Excerpt

That Old Cape Magic


By Richard Russo

Knopf

Copyright © 2009 Richard Russo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780375414961

I

A Finer Place


Though the digital clock on the bedside table in his hotel room read 5:17, Jack Griffin, suddenly wide awake, knew he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. He’d allowed himself to drift off too early the night before. On the heels of wakefulness came an unpleasant realization, that what he hadn’t wanted to admit yesterday, even to himself, was now all too clear in the solitary, predawn dark. He should have swallowed his petulance and waited the extra day for Joy.

It had been their long- established habit to flee the campus as soon as Griffin taught his last class. Usually, they hopped on the Freedom Trail (his term for I- 95), drove to New York and treated themselves by checking into a good hotel. During the day he would evaluate his small mountain of student portfolios while Joy shopped or otherwise amused herself, and then, evenings, they’d catch up on movies and go to good restaurants. The whole thing reminded him of the early years of their marriage back in L.A. It cost a small fortune, but there was something about spending money they didn’t really have that made him optimistic about more coming in—which was how it had worked in L.A.—and it got him through the portfolios.

This year Kelsey’s Cape Cod wedding had royally screwed up theirplans, making New York impractical, though he’d been willing to substitute Boston. But Joy, assuming that thanks to the wedding all the usual bets were off, had messed things up further by scheduling
meetings on the day after his last class. “Just go,” she said when he expressed his annoyance at the way things were working out. “Have a boys’ night out in Boston and I’ll meet you on the Cape.” He’d squinted at this proposal. Didn’t you need more than one to have a boys’ night out? Or had Joy meant it to be singular, one boy celebrating his boyness? Was that how she’d understood
the phrase all her life, as singular? Joy’s relationship to the English language was not without glitches. She was forever mixing metaphors, claiming that something was “a tough line to hoe.” Row to hoe? Line to walk? Her sisters, Jane and June, were even worse,
and when corrected all three would narrow their eyes dangerously and identically. If they’d had a family motto, it would have been You Know Perfectly Well What I Mean.

In any event his wife’s suggestion that he go on without her had seemed less than sincere, which was why he decided to call her bluff. “All right,” he said, “that’s what I’ll do,” expecting her to say, Fine, if it means that much to you, I’ll reschedule the meetings. But she hadn’t said that, even when she saw him packing his bag, and so he’d discovered a truth that other men probably knew already— that once you’d packed a bag in front of a woman there was no possibility of unpacking, or of not going and taking the damn bag with you.

Worse, Joy, who preferred to watch movies on DVD rather than in a theater, as they were meant to be seen, had given him a list of films he was forbidden to see without her, and of course these were the only ones worth seeing. He’d spent an hour looking through the restaurant guides provided by the hotel, but couldn’t decide on one, or even on what kind of food he wanted. Griffin had no trouble making these sorts of decisions when she was around, but for some reason, when he had only himself to please, he often couldn’t make up his mind. He told himself this was just the result of being married for thirty years, that part of the decision- making process was imagining what his wife would enjoy. Okay, but more and more he found himself stalled, in the middle of whatever room he happened to be standing in, and he realized that this had been, of course, his father’s classic pose. In the end Griffin had ordered room service and watched a crappy made- for- TV movie, the kind he and Tommy, his old partner, had been reduced to writing that last year or two in L.A. before he’d gotten his teaching gig and moved back East with Joy and their daughter, Laura. He’d fallen asleep before the first commercial, confident he could predict not only the movie’s outcome but also half its dialogue.

In order not to dwell on yesterday’s mistakes, he decided to put today in motion by calling down to the bell captain for his car. Twenty minutes later, dressed and showered, he’d checked out of his Back Bay hotel. The whole of Boston fit neatly into the rectangle of his rearview mirror, and by the time the Sagamore Bridge, one of two that spanned the Cape Cod Canal, hove into view, the sky was silver in the east, and he felt the last remnants of yesterday’s prevarications begin to lift like the patchy fog he’d been in and out of since leaving the city. The Sagamore arched dramatically upward in the middle, helping to pull the sun over the horizon, and though the air was far too cool, Griffin pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and put the convertible’s top down, feeling truly off the reservation for the first time since leaving home in Connecticut. There was something vaguely thrilling about not being where his wife thought he was. She liked to know what people were up to, and not just him. She called Laura most mornings, her brain still lazy with sleep, to ask “So . . . what’s on the agenda for you today?” She also phoned both of her sisters several times a week and knew that June was having her hair done tomorrow morning and that Jane had put on five new pounds and was starting a diet. She even knew what new folly her idiot twin brothers, Jared and Jason, were engaged in. To Griffin, an only child, such behavior was well over the line that separated the merely inexplicable from the truly perverse.

Zipping along Route 6, Griffin realized he was humming “That Old Black Magic,” the song his parents had sung ironically—both university English professors, that’s how they did most things— every time they crossed the Sagamore, substituting Cape for black. When he was growing up, they’d spent part of every summer on the Cape. He could always tell what kind of year it had been, moneywise, by when and where they stayed. One particularly prosperous year they’d rented a small house in Chatham for the month of August. Another year, when faculty salaries were frozen, all they could afford was Sandwich in June. His parents had been less wed to each other than to a shared sense of grievance over being exiled eleven months of every year to the “Mid- fucking- west,” a phrase they didn’t say so much as spit. They had good academic careers, though perhaps not the stellar ones that might have been predicted, given their Ivy League pedigree. Both had grown up in the Rust Belt of western New York State, his mother in suburban Rochester, his father in Buffalo, the children of lower- middle- class, white- collar parents. At Cornell, where they’d both gone on scholarship, they’d met not only each other but also the kind of friends who’d invited them home for holidays in Wellesley and Westchester and for summer vacations in the Hamptons or on the Cape. They told their parents they could earn more money there, which was true, but in fact they’d have done anything to avoid returning to their parents’ depressing upstate homes. At Yale, where they did their graduate work, they came to believe they were destined for research positions at one of the other Ivys, at least until the market for academics headed south and they had to take what they could get—the pickings even slimmer for a couple—and that turned out to be a huge state university in Indiana.

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward? But they’d had little choice but to hunker down and make the best of their wretched timing, so they dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they’d be ready. They feared the Princeton and Dartmouth ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left the Swarthmores and Vassars of the world as safe if not terribly exciting havens. This much, at least, was surely their due. And before going up for promotion and tenure (or “promotion and tether,” in their parlance) in the Midfucking-west, they’d each had opportunities—she at Amherst, he at Bowdoin—but never together. So they stayed put in their jobs and their marriage, each terrified, Griffin now suspected, that the other, unshackled, would succeed and escape to the kind of academic post (an endowed chair!) that would complete the misery of the one left behind. To make their unhappy circumstances more tolerable, they had affairs and pretended to be deeply wounded when these came to light. His father had been a genuine serial adulterer, whereas his mother simply refused to lag behind in this or anything else.

Of course all of this was adult understanding. As a boy, the reluctant witness to his parents’ myriad quarrels and recriminations, Griffin had imagined that he must be the one keeping them together. It was his mother who eventually disabused him of this bizarre notion. At his and Joy’s wedding reception, actually. But by then they had finally divorced—even spite, apparently, was not eternal—and she’d narrowly won the race to remarry. In an ecumenical mood, she ventured outside the English department for her second husband, a philosopher named Bart, whom she’d quickly dubbed “Bartleby.” At the reception, half in her cups, she’d assured Griffin, “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. For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.

Griffin was about to respond when his father reappeared with Claudia, his former graduate student and new wife. They’d disappeared
briefly after the ceremony, to quarrel or make love, he had no idea. “I swear to God,” his mother said, “if he buys that child a house on the Cape—and I do mean anywhere on the Cape—I may have to murder him.” Her face brightened at a pleasant thought. “You might actually prove useful,” she told Bartleby, then turned back to Griffin. “Your stepfather collects locked- room murder mysteries. Death by curare, that sort of thing. You can figure something out, can’t you? Just make sure I’m in full view of everyone in the drawing room when the fat cow hits the deck, writhing in excruciating pain.” She knew perfectly well, of course, that Griffin’s father didn’t have the money to buy Claudia (who was more zaftig than fat) or anyone else a house on the Cape, of course. She’d made sure of that by beggaring him in the divorce settlement, but the possibility— what of, that he might purchase a winning Lotto ticket?—still clearly worried her.

To Griffin, now fifty- five, roughly the same age his parents had been when he and Joy married, the Cape place- names were still
magical: Falmouth, Woods Hole, Barnstable, Dennis, Orleans, Harwich. They made a boy of him again and put him in the backseat of
his parents’ car, where he’d spent much of his boyhood, unbelted, resting his arms on the front seat, trying to hear what they, who never made any attempt to include him in their conversations, were talking about. It wasn’t so much that he was interested in their front- seat conversations as aware that decisions that impacted him were being made up there, and if privy to these hatching plans he might offer an opinion. Unfortunately, the fact that his chin was resting on the seat back seemed to preclude this. Most of what he overheard wasn’t really worth the effort anyway. “Wellfleet,” his mother might say, studying the road atlas. “Why haven’t we ever tried Wellfleet?” By the time Griffin was a high school freshman, which marked the last of their Cape vacations, they’d rented just about everywhere. Each summer, when they handed over the keys at the end of their stay, the rental agent always asked if they wanted to book it for next year, but they always said no, which made Griffin wonder if the perfect spot they were searching for really existed. Perhaps, he concluded, just looking was sufficient in and of itself.

While he roamed the beach unattended, full of youthful energy and freedom, his parents spent sunny afternoons lying on the sand with their “guilty pleasures,” books they’d have been embarrassed to admit to their colleagues they’d ever heard of. They were on vacation, they claimed, not just from the Mid- fucking- west but also from the literary canon they’d sworn to uphold. His mother’s taste ran to dark, disturbing thrillers and cynical spy novels. “That,” she would say, turning the book’s last page with evident satisfaction, “was truly twisted.” His father alternated between literary pornography and P. G. Wodehouse, enjoying both thoroughly, as if Naked Lunch and Bertie Wooster Sees It Through were intended as companion pieces.

The only thing they both read—indeed, studied as intently as each year’s Modern Language Association job listings—was the real- estate guide. Unwilling to give the other a first look, they always picked up two copies as soon as they arrived and wrote their names on the covers so they’d know which was which and whose fault it was if one got lost. A house here was part of their longrange, two- part plan to escape the Mid- fucking- west. First they would find real jobs back East, where they’d locate a suitable apartment to rent. This would allow them to save money for a house on the Cape, where they’d spend summers and holidays and the occasional long weekend, until of course they retired—early if they could swing it—and lived on there full- time, reading and writing op- eds and, who knew, maybe even trying their hand at a novel.

A single day was usually all it took for each of them to plow through the hundreds of listings in the fat real- estate guide and place each into one of two categories—Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift—before tossing the booklet aside in disgust, because everything was more expensive this year than last. But the very next day his father would set Jeeves aside and take another look. “Page twenty- seven,” he’d say, and Griffin’s mother would set down her Ripley and rummage for her copy in the beach bag. “Bear with me, now,” he’d continue. Or, “Some things would have to go right”—meaning a big merit raise or a new university- press book contract—“but . . .” And then he’d explain why a couple of the listings they’d quickly dismissed the day before just maybe could be made to work. Later in the month, on a rainy day, they’d go so far as to look at a house or two at the low end of the Can’t Afford It category, but the realtors always intuited at a glance that Griffin’s parents were just tire kickers. The house they wanted was located in a future only they could see. For people who dealt largely in dreams, his father was fond of observing, realtors were a surprisingly unromantic bunch, like card counters in a Vegas casino.

The drive back to the Mid- fucking- west was always brutal, his parents barely speaking to each other, as if suddenly recalling last year’s infidelities, or maybe contemplating whom they’d settle for this year. Sex, if you went by Griffin’s parents, definitely took a
backseat to real estate on the passion gauge.

Continues...

Excerpted from That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo Copyright © 2009 by Richard Russo. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo's rueful story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind.

Read More Show Less

Foreword

1. What does Jack Griffin want?

2. In reference to his parents' ongoing but fruitless search for a Cape Cod beach house, Griffin muses, “Perhaps . . . just looking was sufficient in and of itself” (page 9). Is looking enough? Which characters prove or disprove this point of view?

3. One page 16, Griffin points out to his mother that she and his father used to sing “That Old Cape Magic” on the Sagamore Bridge, “as if happiness were a place.” Is it possible for happiness to be a place? Can a place save a relationship?

4. Griffin poses a question to himself: “Why was he more resentful of Harve and Jill, who really wanted to understand how he made his living, than his own parents, who had never, to his knowledge, seen a single film he had anything to do with” (page 49)? Griffin doesn't admit to an answer, but what do you think the answer is?

5. In “The Summer of the Brownings,” young Griffin refuses to spend his last night on the Cape with Peter, even though the decision only serves to hurt everyone. Can you point to other incidents in which Griffin exercises his perverse desire to hurt himself and others?

6. Why is Griffin so apprehensive of commitment? What is he afraid of losing?

7. Griffin notes that “his wife's natural inclination was toward contentment” (page 105). What is Griffin's natural inclination?

8. Is Griffin afraid of being happy? Is being the happy the same as “settling”?

9. How has Griffin's cynicism caused him to misinterpret the intentions of those around him?

10. Why does it take so long for Griffin to dispose of his parents'remains?

11. Why does Griffin feel the need to carry on internal conversations with his mother?

12. How does Griffin's relationship with his parents lead to the dissolution of his marriage to Joy?

13. Why does Griffin insist on staying in L.A., away from Joy?

14. Griffin uneasily considers the parallels between Joy's attachment to himself and Tommy and Laura's attachment to Andy and Sunny. How do these similar triangles play out?

15. This book dances around the concept of responsibility: filial responsibility, marital responsibility, and personal responsibility, to name a few. What do Russo's characters feel about responsibility?

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. What does Jack Griffin want?

2. In reference to his parents' ongoing but fruitless search for a Cape Cod beach house, Griffin muses, “Perhaps . . . just looking was sufficient in and of itself” (page 9). Is looking enough? Which characters prove or disprove this point of view?

3. One page 16, Griffin points out to his mother that she and his father used to sing “That Old Cape Magic” on the Sagamore Bridge, “as if happiness were a place.” Is it possible for happiness to be a place? Can a place save a relationship?

4. Griffin poses a question to himself: “Why was he more resentful of Harve and Jill, who really wanted to understand how he made his living, than his own parents, who had never, to his knowledge, seen a single film he had anything to do with” (page 49)? Griffin doesn't admit to an answer, but what do you think the answer is?

5. In “The Summer of the Brownings,” young Griffin refuses to spend his last night on the Cape with Peter, even though the decision only serves to hurt everyone. Can you point to other incidents in which Griffin exercises his perverse desire to hurt himself and others?

6. Why is Griffin so apprehensive of commitment? What is he afraid of losing?

7. Griffin notes that “his wife's natural inclination was toward contentment” (page 105). What is Griffin's natural inclination?

8. Is Griffin afraid of being happy? Is being the happy the same as “settling”?

9. How has Griffin's cynicism caused him to misinterpret the intentions of those around him?

10. Why does it take so long for Griffin to dispose of his parents' remains?

11. Why does Griffin feel the need to carry on internal conversations with his mother?

12. How does Griffin's relationship with his parents lead to the dissolution of his marriage to Joy?

13. Why does Griffin insist on staying in L.A., away from Joy?

14. Griffin uneasily considers the parallels between Joy's attachment to himself and Tommy and Laura's attachment to Andy and Sunny. How do these similar triangles play out?

15. This book dances around the concept of responsibility: filial responsibility, marital responsibility, and personal responsibility, to name a few. What do Russo's characters feel about responsibility?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 168 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(36)

4 Star

(45)

3 Star

(36)

2 Star

(27)

1 Star

(24)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 168 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is an intriguing look at relationships

    When Jack Griffin was growing up in New England, he vowed to never follow in the footsteps of his academia parents, both professors. Instead he fled to Los Angeles where he became a screenwriter and ultimately married Joy.

    Ironically, after his parents die, he and his spouse move east as he accepts a position as a professor of film. As Jack has the urns containing the dust of his parents in his trunk, he looks back at his life wondering is that all there is. He thinks of his honeymoon with Joy at the cape where he demanded they go and a year later to Maine where she demanded they go. He reflects on the marriages of his parents and her parents while pondering whether he needs to call its quits on his.

    This is an intriguing look at relationships with the emphasis being on marital, parent-adult offspring, and parent adult offspring's spouse. How haunting these combinations can be is accentuated by Jack's inability to spread the ashes. With flashbacks, the audience sees how dynamics change over time due to age and marital status. Although Jack can overkill a poetic soliloquy with a passionate display of motor mouth, fans will appreciate Richard Russell's deep look at relational magic.

    Harriet Klausner

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    My Favorite Richard Russo book so far!

    I loved, loved, loved everything about the novel 'That Old Cape Magic.' The characters were so well drawn; the family quirks charming and "laugh out loud" funny.
    I'm recommending this book to friends as a great read.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 26, 2009

    Russo's ironic humor rules in "That Old Cape Magic"

    Richard Russo's fiction may appeal more to mature readers than to those who like bodice-rippers and romans de clef. Its ironic look are modern marriage won't appeal to those who yearn for everything to work out all right in the end. It's far too realistic for that kind of formulaic reader's taste. But it does look without blinking at the capacity of people to live according to their own self-imposed formulas, and to affect the lives of their children and friends with their stubborn refusal to adapt their lives to conditions. Indeed, the stubborn adherence to formulas which reflect their snobbishness is the strongest aspect of the characters whose determined unhappiness makes their actions so interesting that we can no more turn away from them than we can drive past a wreck along the highway without slowing down.

    There is little escapism in this book for the reader who seeks it. Instead there is a hard look at those who seek to escape from their unhappy lives by denying that they are unhappy. There is plenty to think about in this book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2009

    No Pulitzer Prize Winner but enjoyable

    Richard Russo wrote a "beach book" this time around. Enjoyable, light, superficial story. I agree with some of the other reviewers that he definitely overused certain phrases - not a lot of originality. Same with a number of the characters, e.g. Joy's twin brothers, Sunny Kim. Just so stereotypical. Wait for the paperback and take it to the beach. It can be read in a day or so. I would give the book a 2.5.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2009

    lazy redundancy

    this could be a really good book - it's about the residue of family on you and being an academic on vacation and marriage - but the author spoils it by repeating stupid catch phrases (the "mid-f**kig west", and dining with Al (al fresco))) he also exaggerates - making the story un-believable (his parents ruining countless rental house - fire and flood) but not comic which would redeem the extremity-I am so disappointed- how many times do I read a review (NPR!!, NYT!) and believe the praise to the degree that I buy a hardcover book. Never-! now the question is whether to finish it--almost toxic to read about people with selfish bad attitudes?

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2009

    Has some lighter moments for a serious topic; disappointing overall plot

    Very slow moving in some areas; maybe you have to be a New Englander to fully appreciate.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 31, 2009

    I couldn't finish this book

    This book is so boring, I couldn't finish it.
    Don't waste your money.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2011

    A great holiday read!

    It seems that we have to accept the downside of writers having to support themselves by giving creative writing courses. It feels like every protagonist in modern American literature is a middle-class professor nowadays... But this is an artfully constructed book, with one standout comic scene, whihc is the equal of Richard Ford's baseball incident in 'Independence Day' in its ability to distil the poignancy and heart of the entire book. That scene (which involves a wedding, a wheelchair and a ricketty veranda) is worth the cover price on its own!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    psychobabble

    While I thought I'd be reading about the Cape, and certainly there were some references to the Cape, most of the book had to do with the mental anguish of the characters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2010

    Really enjoyed

    I really enjoyed Richard Russo's new book. As always he write in a way to keep you interested through out the whole book. It is a great read and a lot of fun.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 28, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Wonderful

    If only I could do anything as well as Richard Russo writes. Once again when reading a book of his, one feels that they know these people and care about them. He writes about real people with their imperfections, their conflicts, their warts and all.

    I laughed, I cried, I commiserated .... I couldn't put it down and was sorry to see it end. Well done!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2009

    Old Cape Magic hits home

    I laughed out loud at this latest effort of Russo's. It was poignant and brought up so many memories. We're old Cape Codder's ourselves and truly understood the feeling of going over the bridge onto the Cape. His reflections on his parents and his later revelations were so insightful. Loved the book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 26, 2009

    Richard Russo; always a good read.

    This is very different from other Russo works. At first you are not sure you are liking it, but you get drawn in. I really liked the book, and Russo is always a pleasure to read. There is always a mixture of pathos and humor in his work,and this is no exception. One particular event was the singularly most side-splitting sequence I have ever read. I won't spoil it by saying anything about it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2009

    Another great Russo book

    A thoughtful and touching look at parental and marital relationships. A work as much about things said as things left unsaid. A little reminiscent of "Straight Man" as far as the main character. Russo continues to develop deep empathy for his characters as will his readers. Russo seems to have taken a simpler approach than such previous works as "Empire Falls". Less detail about place but very deep insight into relationships as well as some welcome comic relief. A worthwhile read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 29, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Not the Russo we know and love

    Russo tried to leave the world of affable, pitiable bar hangers but the result read as though he rushed through to put out something new. The characters do not grab one at all as his folks typically do. The main character was a whiny guy still tied to his parents at age 50 or so. The other characters were not defined at all. I am a huge Russo fan but this one disappoints.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2012

    recommend

    This was a good read but it jumped from past to present alot.
    Sometime it was hard to follow.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 18, 2011

    The book that would NEVER end

    I got to the final 20 pages and just wanted it to be over! If you are in to analyzing the thoughts and emotions of characters, this is your book.

    I found myself craving dialogue! Although the scene with the father-in-law and the hedge was pretty funny! Best part of the book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2010

    SKIP THIS ONE - DO NOT RECOMMEND!!!

    The story is not that great and we can surely do with out the foul language written here. I think writer's can surely tell a good story without the use of such language. I do not recommend this for anyone. Don't waste your time on this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2010

    Not Recommend

    This book was a struggles to get into. The story was just not interesting.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2010

    Great Read for Married Person

    Russo explores love and marriage from several different angles and confirms the complexity of these human relationships.

    I love the way he writes and the way he spills out the story. He kept me turning pages but I savored each one.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 168 Customer Reviews

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