Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

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That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 52

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

That Old Cape Magic might be one of my favorite reads of the year.  The main character, Jack Griffin, is the son of two Literature Professors – brilliant people, Yale educated, who never quite made it as far as they believe they should have.  Jack is a disappointment to his parents because he gives up on “important” writing and moves to Hollywood in order to write screenplays. Of course, they are also quite envious of him for getting out of “the mid-fucking-west,” as they call it.  Still, his parents are of the class of “academics” who find any popular writing – anything that anybody would willingly publish or find enjoyable to read- not at all valuable (don’t we all know those types of academics who think, “if the commoners are reading it, it must not be very good!”?). Griffin struggles against their influence all his life, only to realize very late that he has become exactly like them (even –gasp- a literature professor!).  Over the course of decades, as he slowly morphs into the very thing he was rebelling against, he loses his parents, his wife, and any sense of self he once had.  He, like his parents, seeks out Cape Cod in order to reclaim himself and remind him of what is truly important to him, and to set his parents to rest, at long last. Ultimately, Jack’s journey is to find happiness by accepting where he comes from, by letting go of pains from the past, and by acknowledging all the good things that he has – a lesson most of us could be reminded of from time to time.

Characterization:
4 – Characters very well-developed.

The characters in this book range from self-absorbed (most of them), to self-deprecating; from hilariously buffoonish (Jack’s brothers-in-law) to sensible and patient (Jack’s wife).  Although the main character’s parents are painted with a somewhat biased brush, the truth is that they are supposed to appear rather one-sided.  Part of the story is an exploration of memory and perception – when we remember events from childhood, when we think of our parents as they were when we were children- are we remembering things accurately?  Could we really have known what anyone was like, when we look back on a child’s perspective, thirty years later?  Jack looks at each character in the book a certain way, very rarely changing his mind about anyone, but readers get glimpses into different sides of their personalities, which tells us more about them but also about the narrator and his reliability (or not). Russo is adept at narrating small moments, such as a woman crying in the shower or a father thinking about his daughter, to illustrate and round-out even the more minor of characters in the story.  We learn that everyone has at least two identities, the way they see themselves and the way others see them, but two is just the minimum – most of us have many more.  Although the cast is rather sad and unlikable (his characters and plots combine in ways which create a sense of what Thoreau calls the “quiet desperation” of man), and though many of them have bloated egos and often lament the life they could have had, without making much effort to achieve it, still they come together to tell a story – they are believable, recognizable people in believable, recognizable families and situations. 

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Perhaps Russo’s greatest strength, at least in That Old Cape Magic, is his storytelling ability.  He understands people and their complexities.  He is sensitive and observant, which is appropriate when considering that this is really a story about stories and a tale about telling (one would expect a writer to be almost obsessively observant – and we surely recognize this in ourselves). His prose is light but serious – it’s a bizarre way of reflecting real life, where most of our thoughts are on the surface, yet powerful and sometimes dangerous emotions are always at work, deep in the undertow.  Russo drops philosophical tidbits here and there throughout the book – little life lessons about understanding people, living with compassion, questioning (and even doubting) our own memories.  The fluid prose, the welcoming language (drawing us into the story even when the characters might be repellant), and the oftentimes hilarious reflections and dialogue all make for an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present & enhance the story.

There are two primary subjects in That Old Cape Magic.  The first is family and relationships; the second is writing and, more specifically, popular writing vs. academic writing (what is “valuable?”).  For the first, Russo explores an idea that his main character, Griffin, inherits from his parents – that happiness, and home, is “a place you could visit but never own.”  For his family, that place is Cape Cod, but the reality is that they are never truly happy there, either.  The second theme, academic versus popular writing, and what matters, is especially fun and interesting for students of English/Literature, particularly those familiar with academic department politics (groan).  Russo’s book is clever in that it is written as popular contemporary fiction, but he is clearly aware of the academic side (and likely reception by academics to this, his own work) and of the prejudices and pretensions that come with “literary” scrutiny.  Who are these people who get to define what is “good” and “important,” he seems to be asking.  Russo drops-in references to Melville, Faulkner, and other canonical writers, which is clearly a “poke in the eye” to the prestigious readers, indicating that he knows what he is talking about; but, he also manages to make the story his own, modern and readable, so that really anyone (particularly fans of fiction that explores families, memory, and writing) can enjoy it.  I would not go so far as to say that this is a brilliant work, but Russo is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and That Old Cape Magic helps to explain why.  It is fun but powerful, light but deep, easy to follow, yet deceptively layered.  A great read, especially for the well-trained reader who will pick-up on subtle literary references (they are not as in-your-face as Jasper Fforde’s, but they are there).

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Family, Marriage, Adultery, Academia, Metafiction, Literature, Memory

Notable Quotes:

“For a moment it seemed as if Bartleby might offer an observation of his own, but he apparently preferred not to, though he did sigh meaningfully.” (8)

“Stories worked much the same way . . . A false note at the beginning was much more costly than one nearer the end because early errors were part of the foundation.” (67)

“Only very stupid people are happy.” (195)

“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.”

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5 thoughts on “Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

    • I believe Empire Falls is the book he won the Pulitzer Prize for, right? I keep hearing that that one is overrated, in comparison and that he really should have won the Pulitzer for his earlier work. The one I really want to read is The Risk Pool.

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