Richard Russo is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Empire Falls (2001), which, like his other novels (including Bridge of Sighs, Jan/Feb 2008), are firmly rooted in struggling blue-collar towns. That Old Cape Magic represents a geographic departure for the author.
The Story: Jack Griffin, a 55-year-old English professor experiencing a midlife crisis, and his wife drive down to Cape Cod, where he summered as a child, to celebrate the marriage of their daughter’s best friend. As he searches for an elusive happiness, he ruminates on his life—his snobby academic parents’ neuroses (he carries around his father’s ashes in his trunk in the hope of gathering the courage to scatter them on Cape Cod), his New England teaching and Hollywood screenwriting career, and his deteriorating marital relationship. A year later, another wedding brings into sharp relief the ghosts of his past: the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of his marriage, and the binds that unite the generations.
Knopf. 261 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 978-0375414961
NY Times Book Review
"The past drama of the parents’ marriage is relayed in comically dreadful flashbacks: the ghastly, manipulative graduate student who entraps the father after his divorce; the nightmare retirement dinner for the acidulous mother, who uses it as an opportunity to declare her real feelings. … Russo clearly enjoys himself as careers topple, good taste is outraged and professional ethics are mauled." Roxana Robinson
"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
"Russo has a gift for creating flawed characters you care about, despite or because of their flaws. … Amid the humor, it raises questions about the complications we inherit and the ones we build for ourselves." Bob Minzesheimer
"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." Ron Charles
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Gone though the decaying mill town may be, Russo’s signature difficult parents, forever distorting life for their offspring, are very much in evidence. … [Griffin’s] misadventures along the way are of a contemplative sort, which makes this novel perhaps a little more like life than most, for better or for worse." Ellen Akins
Los Angeles Times
"When essentially serious literary novelists venture into physical or screwball comedy … it often seems as if they are amping up the silliness quotient with an eye on the big screen. … It boasts a tight single-year timeline, photogenic locations, lots of physical comedy and snappy dialogue." Heller McAlpin
New York Times
"The autobiographical-sounding Jack Griffin feels adrift after having lived in the worlds of both moviemaking and academia and is no longer sure where his heart or his talents lie. This entertaining but facile book suggests that Mr. Russo is himself contemplating those same questions." Janet Maslin
"The awkward and angst-infused re-creation of adolescent longing and confusion places Russo back on the firm footing so evident in the novels of small-town Upstate New York with which he made his name. … Russo often writes beautifully, but in Griffin he’s created a less than likable protagonist painfully slow to figure out readily apparent life lessons." Dan DeLuca
Set in Cape Cod, California, and Maine rather than upstate New York, That Old Cape Magic is smaller in scope than Russo’s previous novels but nonetheless contains Russo’s trademark psychological complexity. While reviewers disagreed about the novel’s overall success, they concurred that Griffin’s quarrelsome, bitter parents—whom Griffin can’t seem to shed—steal the show. Another favorite was the story within a story called "The Summer of the Brownings," about Griffin’s childhood friendship during a Cape Cod holiday. But critics were generally split on the comic, slapstick set pieces, Griffin’s wearying narrative voice, and the story line’s predictability. Still, Russo fans will find much to enjoy here—though, hopefully, they will not identify with the familiar souls who blunder their way through life.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the 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?