Monday, February 15, 2010

That Old Cape Magic

Known for Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool, and Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo shows again in That Old Cape Magic that he is a writer to read.

Even though the novel begins with its main character heading to a wedding in Cape Cod, Russo takes Griffin, on his own journey -- a sojourn fraught with coming to terms with his own marriage, his wife's parents, and his own unsettled upbringing with parents who seemed at odds with not only their only child, him, but with the world itself. His wife Joy tells him that he's "congenitally unhappy," and notes himself that he's prone to "bogus emotions of self-pity and nostalgia."

In the trunk of his car, Griffin carries the urn of his father's ashes and determines that he will strew them at the Cape -- the setting where his parents always longed for a vacation home -- and to come back to in their old age. Problem is -- Griffin can't quite let go of those ashes -- he tries, but each time, some circumstance keeps him from performing this task.

Delving into his childhood vacations to the Cape with his unhappy parents, who detested that they ended up teaching in colleges in the "freakin'" Midwest, Griffin and his parents return each summer to the Cape where they rented a series of houses and dined with "Al Fresco," a running joke between them.

One summer in particular stood out in the mind of Griffin -- the summer he met the Brownings, a family of four with a chuckling dad who took his kids to the beach, bought them fireworks, and cooked hamburger on the grille while the beautiful mother did all kinds of motherly things --- gave out hugs, made lunch, and seemed to enjoy her children --- a contrast to his erudite parents who read books, had cocktail hour, and were thrilled to leave Griffin in the care of the Brownings while they sneaked into the nearest town to dine alone.

This memory for Griffin, a college professor and former screen-writer, has the makings of a short story but he couldn't quite get his thoughts around how to write it. The story stalks Griffin .. should he focus on his parents, marriage, or childhood -- or some kind of combination of them all? He believes that the Browning story "probably just explained how he'd come to be the husband and father he was instead of the one he meant to be."

In addition, Griffin feels daunted by his wife Joy's big family --- six children and what he saw as rather, shallow parents -- even though he respects his smart, capable wife. When he married Joy, his mother quipped, "She hasn't done graduate work? Really? How pedestrian."

When his father-in-law remarries after the death of his wife, the new wife comments to Griffin that when she's around "those people [Joy's family] -- [I feel] like I'm being pummeled. Bludgeoned. Battered. Cudgeled." Griffin nods in agreement.

Griffin suffers with his mother's criticisms, his lack of love for his in-laws, and his awareness that at this moment, there is something much wrong with his own marriage... and how is all of this mixed up in his own relationship with his parents and with his in-laws as well as with his daughter's announcement that she is getting married?

That Old Cape Magic is a coming of age novel for the middle aged--- that perhaps what we think we want sometimes is not it at all -- that what we want is perhaps what we have. :)


  1. Wow! Now that is a book I need a lot of quiet time to read! It sounds amazing and extremely depressing but one I will definitely add to my list :)

  2. Gillham! I've been trying to contact you for years to tell you how tenth-grade English ruined my life. Do you know what I've become thanks to your horrid writing Fridays? The worst thing possible. Nope, not a meth addict. Or a politician. Worse than that. I'm an editor.

    But wait, there's more. I'm also a writer. Some fools have actually paid me for articles. And now I'm trying to convince someone to publish my novel.

    Be afraid,

    Jennifer Whiteley Becton
    HHS 1995

    If you have time, please email me, so I can berate you further for your negative impact on my life.