Saturday, October 3, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo's latest novel, That Old Cape Magic, published in August, doesn't quite have the magic that his 2002 book Empire Falls effortlessly exudes. Here we have the story of Jack Griffin, a screenwriter and professor in his late fifties, whose marriage is starting to disintegrate and who is haunted by his parents, one living and one dead (and rattling around in an urn in Jack's trunk).

The novel is based around two weddings, one of his daughter's childhood friend on Cape Cod, and his daughter's in Maine. Together they bookend a year in which Jack must deal with his failing marriage and his inability to move past his parents' problems. Jack's parents were also college professors, but they were unable to secure jobs at East Coast colleges and were instead exiled to a large university in the Midwest. They spend summers on the Cape, staying in a different town and different house each summer, always looking for something better.

That something better never comes, and they are never able to buy a property of their own. Jack's parents' marriage falls apart as well, and when Jack marries he keeps his wife and daughter away from his parents, who are snobby and pretentious. But his mother is also a firecracker.

Russo just doesn't seem to have it here. He's created his expected funny scenes, and a wide cast of characters that are for the most part endearing (especially Jack's parents, who save the book). He's also a lovely writer. But Jack is aggravating and the plot is predictable. The lessons Jack has to learn are obvious to us from the start, and when they finally hit Jack over the head, we're just as relieved that it's over.

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