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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What I'm Reading: That Old Cape Magic

That Old Cape Magic

I read the newest Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, on the beach; it wasn't the Cape Cod or Maine beaches mentioned in the novel, but rather, my homeland, the Jersey Shore, specifically Wildwood Crest.

Here's the basics on plot. Griffin is a college professor of screen-writing at a MA college where his wife works in admissions. Griffin is on his way to his daughter's, best friend's wedding on Cape Cod. He has been driving with the ashes of his dead father in his trunk for about 9 months. He tells himself he was waiting to deposit the ashes in the waters off of Cape Cod, where his parents took him every summer for vacation.

Griffin cannot get himself to dispose of the ashes. He is also haunted by the memories of his childhood. To put it mildly, his parents were very messed up, and he has spent his entire adult life trying to not be like them. However, his marriage is currently suffering due to his inability to see he has actually become them.

After the first wedding, the story fast-forwards a year to another wedding. This time it is Griffin's own daughter and it is in Maine. Over that year, Griffin and his wife have lived on opposite coasts and are considering divorce. Also, Griffin's mother has now passed on, so he is riding around with both of his parents' ashes in his trunk.

In true Russo protagonist style, Griffin is extremely ineffectual, to the point of self destructive; however, despite the chaos, after this second wedding, Griffin is able to see his life clearly, possibly for the first time, and he manages to make steps toward fixing his life.

That Old Cape Magic is a story like most Russo tales in that it involves a middle aged man going through some kind of mid-life crisis. I don't mean to belittle Russo's work; in fact, I am a huge fan of his. Russo is able to capture the relationships between people in such a realistic way that I feel it is, at times, clearer than reality. What I mean by this is that Russo is able to inhabit his narrators and tell us what they are thinking; explaining their inner thoughts so well that the reader can understand why they act so stupidly. We root for them to figure it out, even as we cringe at their choices along the way.

The other thing this talented Pulitzer Prize winning author is so well known for is his descriptions of the demise of working class towns in the upper North East. He describes what happens to once prosperous middle class communities and their citizen once the mill or factory in said community is shut down. Click here to see an example when I read Bridge of Sighs.

That Old Cape Magic has been getting mixed reviews though, and I think I understand why. It is missing that working class motif. In fact, it is only about privileged and well connected people which made for a different, yet still entertaining novel.

Readalikes: I enjoy Russo quite a bit, as a result, I have considered his readalike options frequently. I would suggest Richard Ford (specifically the Bascombe Triliogy), Tom Perrotta, Pete Hamill, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Chabon.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and Olive Kittridge by Elizabeth Strout are also readalikes for That Old Cape Magic specifically.

Readers may also be interested in books about Cape Cod after reading this novel.

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