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That Old Cape Magic
Richard Russo, 2009
Following Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo gives us the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.
Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father's ashes in the trunk of his car, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling him 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, that of their beloved Laura, on the coast of Maine, Griffin is 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.
The storytelling is flawless throughout, scenes of great comedy, even hilarity, alternating with moments of understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and the ending is at once surprising, uplifting, and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—July 15, 1949
• Where—Johnstown, New York, USA
• Education—B.A.,M.F. A. and Ph.D.,University of Arizona
• Awards—Pulitzer Prize
• Currently—lives in Camden, Maine
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."
From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:
• 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 Food (the book and movie), he was able to quit teaching—but he still likes to write in tight 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."
• When asked what his favorite books are, he offered this list:
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens—All of Dickens, really. The breadth of his canvas, the importance he places on vivid minor characters, his understanding that comedy is serious business. And in the character of Pip, I learned, even before I understood I'd learned it, that we recognize ourselves in a character's weakness as much than his strength. When Pip is ashamed of Joe, the best man he knows, we see ourselves, and it's terrible, hard-won knowledge.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Twain's great novel demonstrates that you can go to the very darkest places if you're armed with a sense of humor. His study of American bigotry, ignorance, arrogance, and violence remains so fresh today, alas, because human nature remains pretty constant. I understand the contemporary controversy, of course. Huck's discovery that Jim is a man is hardly a blinding revelation to black readers, but the idea that much of what we've been taught by people in authority is a crock should resonate with everybody. Especially these days.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Mostly, I suppose, because his concerns -- class, money, the invention of self -- are so central to the American experience. Fitzgerald understood that our most vivid dreams are often rooted in self-doubt and weakness. Many people imagine that we identify with strength and virtue. Fitzgerald knew better.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck—For the beauty of the book's omniscience. It's fine for writers to be humble. Most of us have a lot to be humble about. But it does you no good to be timid. Pretend to be God? Why not? (Bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)
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.
Ron Charles - Washington Post
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 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
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.
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. —Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
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.
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.
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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