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 bindand 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
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 bestand the worstthings 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
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.)
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
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.
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.
“Marvelous. . . . Utterly charming.” —The Washington Post
“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.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“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.” —People
“A fine book about parents and children, about remembering and forgetting, and ultimately what it means to be a grown-up.” —The San Francisco Chronicle
“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.” —The Miami Herald
“Suffused with Russo’s signature comic sensibility, and with insights, by turns tender and tough, about human frailty, forbearance, fortitude, and fervor.” —The Boston Globe
“Russo has a great sense of humor, of the absurd, and of the intricate, constantly shifting, complex emotional levels of his characters. . . . The way Russo plumbs their depths are wonderful. Incidents and episodes charm and sparkle.” —The Providence Journal
“Does not disappoint. . . . [With] deep connection to place, and affection for the large cast of characters who blunder and struggle through his pages.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[With] elegant writing. . . . Few novelists exude as much wry compassion as Russo.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has again worked his magic.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Glistening. . . . [A] chambered nautilus of a novel.” —Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” National Public Radio
“Good-humored, deeply felt, frankly put. . . . Full of Mr. Russo’s canny dialogue and piquantly funny observations.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Insightful. . . . [With] sharply funny dialogue, a crisp and shapely plot, beguiling settings and likable characters . . . plus a couple of wildly hilarious big scenes.” —St. Petersburg Times
“This is a thinking person’s novel. . . . [Russo’s] prose is thought-provoking and guaranteed to make you examine your relationships with your parents, your spouse and your children.” —The City Wire
“Russo’s deft characterization, wit and sympathetic eye are always welcome.” —Winnipeg Free Press
“Effortlessly emotional . . . so awash in seriously comic and tragic but always brutally honest moments. . . . A beautiful depiction of how people think, how we convince ourselves that we are the center of our universe, and that things don’t just happen but are ‘done,’ often to or for us.” —Pop Matters
“Russo is an apt and sensitive storyteller, and his prose is generously sprinkled with insights into everyday life.” —Daily Herald
“Tender and heartening. . . . Full of humor and pathos. . . . A deeply mature novel that deals with marriage and aging so gracefully.” —San Antonio Express-News
“Russo is a sensitive, intelligent writer. . . . It’s always a pleasure to read his smooth prose and inhabit his characters’ conflicted minds.” —The San Jose Mercury News
“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.” —USA Today
“A touching portrait of smart people spinning their wheels.” —Chicago Tribune
“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.” —Bangor Daily News