That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo


Review copy provided by Random House

Review copy provided by

Richard Russo, one of my favorite American writers, runs into my version of the worst possible author’s dilemma in his new novel, That Old Cape Magic — the first 70 pages are so good, there is absolutely no way the rest of the book can stand up to them. In those often hilarilous opening pages, we meet Jack Griffin but, even more importantly, we meet his childhood memories of his parents, William and Mary (as you will see, no prize for catching the academic reference) and what it was like growing up in the strange environments that they called home.

William and Mary did their undergraduate degrees in English literature at Cornell, moved on to grad work at Yale and expected Ivy League appointments to follow. Instead, a slump in the academic marketplace meant they ended up in the Mid-fucking-west at an Indiana state university:

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward? But they’d had little choice but to hunker down and make the best of their wretched timing, so they dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they’d be ready. They feared Princeton and Dartmouth ships had probably sailed for good, but that still left Swarthmores and Vassars as safe if not terribly exciting havens. This much, at least, was surely their due. And before going up for promotion and tenure (or “promotion and tether”, in their parlance in the Mid-fucking-west) they’d each had opportunities — she at Amherst, he at Bowdoin — but never together. So they stayed put in their jobs and their marriage, each terrified, Griffin now suspected, that the other, unshackled, would succeed and escape to the kind of academic post (an endowed chair!) that would complete the misery of the one left behind.

They respond with a series of affairs — William’s of a serial variety with students, Mary mainly keeping up. Griffin always thought they had stayed together for his sake — the family –, but his mother, in her cups at his wedding reception, assures him that was not the case:

“Good heavens, no, it wasn’t you. What kept us together was ‘That Old Cape Magic’. Remember how we used to sing it every year on the Sagamore?” She then turned to Bartleby (her second husband, a silent philosopher). “One glorious month, each summer,” she explained. “Sun. Sand. Water. Gin. Followed by eleven months of misery.” Then back to Griffin. “But that’s about par for most marriages, I think you’ll find.”

What a wonderful wedding reception exchange. These Griffins are something else.

I have only been to Cape Cod twice but it is small enough that those visits produce enduring memories — and Russo’s prose brings them back in spades. Even as a youth, he understands that the Cape holiday is a reflection of the economics of the previous academic year (“They never freeeze salaries two years in a row.”). In good years, William and Mary rent a cottage for a month in Chatham (at the elbow of the Cape) in August; in bad, it is a shack on an inland pond for two weeks in June. There is a constant every year, however. The first thing his parents do after crossing the Sagamore bridge is to pick up two copies of the Cape Cod real estate guide (they sign them to make sure each knows whose copy is whose) and within 24 hours every property falls into one of two categories — Can’t Afford It or Wouldn’t Have It As A Gift. You only have to go to Cape Cod once to appreciate how true that is (yes, on only two visits, I have done this).

That’s enough for those first 70 pages. I can’t recall reading anything as laugh-out-loud funny in recent memory. And while the next 190 aren’t nearly as good, alas, they are still fine.

When we meet Griffin he is arriving on the Cape alone for the wedding of his daughter’s friend — his wife, Joy, is folllowing one day later, the result of a marital spat where they both stupidly dug in their heels (none of us married people have ever done that). In his trunk, Griffin has his father’s ashes. William’s body was found in the passenger seat of his car in a parking lot on the Mass Pike. Griffin assumed he was on his way to the Cape (perhaps with a student who abandoned the body?), so scattering the ashes there seems appropriate. He is a prisoner of his parents, even in his mid-fifties.

Griffin and Joy have their own Cape memories. They honeymooned at Truro (even though his wife would have preferred coastal Maine) where they framed the Great Truro Accord. The Accord said that while they would make their money in California, where Joy went to school (no grad work, however) and Griffin is a screenwriter, they would eventually move to the east Coast, ideally the Cape but Maine would be fine. Thirty-four years later (the present time of this book) Griffin is teaching screenwriting at a college in Maine, Joy is associate dean of admissions at the same college. The tensions in their marriage are about to reach a breaking point.

That Old Cape Magic comes in two parts. A year later, Griffin and Joy are back in the East, this time in Maine for the marriage of their own daughter. They are separated, not so much deliberately but by default. This time each has brought a new date. Griffin now has his mother’s ashes as well as his father’s (one in the left trunk wheel well, the other in the right) and he intends to head to Cape Cod to finally scatter them both. Before dying, his mother firmly stated that her divorced husband should be spread on the bay side, reflecting his quietness, while hers should be scattered on the more active Atlantic coast. Together, in a way, but separate.

Russo’s humor is dark, but never unfriendly. If the first part of this book was not so good, the rest would verge on brilliant — a few days after completing it, I’m happy to say that latter part is getting better in memory. It suffered in the reading only because of what preceded it.

I can’t deny that my own love of Cape Cod, from very limited exposure, infected my positive reaction to this book. Russo’s previous work (he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs is an excellent novel) has tended to focus on the decline of industrial upstate New York and the coast of Maine — this one does have a much more playful touch. I do think that there is a very good argument that he is the heir to Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike in the way that he captures life in the northeast United States. The Kennedy’s still have their compound there (Eunice died in Hyannis hospital the day after I finished this book) and the Bushes still summer in Maine. Just as Fitzgerald, Cheever and Updike captured the importance of this part of the world in their era, Russo makes his mark in the present one.

Although, the next time I read That Old Cape Magic (and I will), I’m starting at page 70 and saving the first 69 for last. Not my advice for your first read, but definitely worth considering for your second. This is a wonderful book.

I have read a lot of books already this year — That Old Cape Magic is not the best “literary” book, but it is high on the shortlist of most enjoyable reads — and unlikely to be replaced.


27 Responses to “That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo”

  1. Frances Says:

    Funny that Russo, even a little off his game as in this book, is still a masterful storyteller. Agree that the first section of the book is wonderful but also love the whole second wedding rehearsal night debacle especially his channeling of his dead mother’s caustic wit. And then two dead parents in the trunk. A very enjoyable read.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I am reading the Booker longlist, Frances, and this book was a welcome relief from a bad streak I am running into there. The second wedding would get a 7 out of 10 for me (which is very good) — the front part of the book gets as close to 10 as you can. Russo is a very readable author.


  3. john h Says:

    I haven’t read this yet but will when it comes to my local library. I haven’t missed a Russo so far. I think you’ve hit on the operative word for him when you say “enjoyable.” He’s that in spades. “Nobody’s Fool” and “Straight Man” are my favorites. “The Risk Pool” is also very good. You can’t miss with this guy. They made a very good movie of “Nobody’s Fool.” I wonder if you’ve seen it. They cut out about a third of the book but it was still one of the better novel to movie adaptations I’ve seen.


  4. Trevor Says:

    I keep putting off reading Russo. I think he’s one of those I always plan on reading sometime in the future, but whatever that future is it never seems to arrive. I’m getting the feeling that some of his books might go well with my autumn mood. Does anyone with clairvoyance think I should tackle a few of his books this fall? Will he suit my mood? And which one is the perfect starting point?


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Given where you live and where your life is at right now, you should read Russo. I’d start with this book because it ties into your academic background, then move on to something like Empire Falls. Also, to truly appreciate this book, you and Sherry and the boys should go to Cape Cod (perhaps a few weeks also on the Jersey shore, for contrast). You have done the Berkshires already, so a few weeks in Maine in the fall would complete your itinerary.

    Am I not good at plotting schedules? (Please consult your wife before responding.)



  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Yoicks!!!!!! I forgot to say that you should also take a Chatham cottage on the Cape for at least a month. We’ll take June if you guys are up for July. You can do a draft of your novel in June and I’ll edit it in July. Or Sherry could write a YA book that I would provide useless notes on.


  7. Trevor Says:

    You’ve answered the call for clairvoyance, Kevin! Sherry (who is hard at work on her YA novel) and I (no novel in the works here, though) were actually planning on going to Maine this month, but we decided to go visit family in the west instead. We’ll hopefully get to Maine soon, though. I’m not sure whether next summer I’ll be at the point in my career where I can take a month off, unfortunately. Trips along the shore, however, are going to be part of our lives, and we can always use your advice :).

    Also, thanks for the tips on the books!


  8. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    Do you think you could recommend a nice trip (sans-boys) to Trevor? Maybe let him know that India would be an important literary vacation? I’d even settle for something simpler like Disneyland. Whatever you can do.


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Since you are heading West this year, I would say that Fante (he does Colorado in 1933 and the first of the Bandini quartet), Stegner and McCarthy should be on the immediate reading agenda.

    India is fine for the future, but perhaps a bit too large. What about Sri Lanka? Many fine novels are set there and I would be happy to provide details.


  10. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    Nice job! I lack the literary knowledge to really seal the deal, but Trevor would like details on Sri Lanka.
    Also, thanks for the West recommendations. I’m a bit tired of YA literature right now and have been looking for the right distraction. Something a bit grittier like McCarthy would be the right change of pace.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    McCarthy will certainly give you grit. I’ll admit that Stegner and Fante are more to my taste.

    On the Sri Lankan front, check out Shyam Selvadurai. He was born there, emigrated to Canada but his novels (Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens are best known) are set there. Given your interest in YA, he also was a Governor-General’s award finalist for his teen book, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.

    And Michael Ondaatje is also Sri Lankan, but only Anil’s Ghost (not his best work by any means) is set there.


  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Kevin, would you recommend this as a good starting point with Russo? I’m not familiar with his works, but this does sound enjoyable and the kind of thing I might like.

    On an unrelated note, I can certainly recommend some Indian fiction if we need to tempt Trevor to the subcontinent…


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You pose a tough question, Max, since I like Russo for many reasons. His Pulitzer winner, Empire Falls, is probably most highly regarded but I would recommend working up to it. Nobody’s Fool is an earlier example of the “declining northeast” theme and a very good entry point — the movie version (starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy) is also much better than the Empire Falls movie.

    A personal favorite, because I am a sucker for novels set in the academic world, is Straight Man where a 50-year-old interim chair of the English department faces budget cuts. Good Russo black humour in this one.

    Which is not an argument against starting with That Old Cape Magic — it showcases both Russo’s strengths and his faults. I certainly liked the book but I am not sure how much my respect and admiration for Russo influenced that judgment.


  14. Allrevedup Says:

    Hi, thought I’d come over for a visit and I find you’ve just read the book I’m now reading ( I’m on page 155). This my first Russo and I am loving it, as you say the opening pages are very fine indeed, and this looks like gettting on my books of the year list with which I bore everyone in my Christmas letter ( having no children I’m forced to resort to other tactics.) I’m also taking a break from Booker reading, haven given up altogether on ‘Not untrue and not unkind’. I’ve just sent for the Coetzee after Lynne’s review this morning, so only that and the Trevor left. I’m now agog to read more Russo, but there is a book backlog here as I’ve been book binging all this year.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome Allrevedup and thanks for the comment. I think you’ll find my Russo recommendations in my answer to Max. I like him a lot but I do think it is a good idea to space reading him out a bit (say one every six months). One I did like a lot that I did not mention previously is Bridge of Sighs, his book just before this one.


  16. That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    […] For another excellent perspective on the book, check out Kevin From Canada. […]


  17. Mary Says:

    Well I ended up reading my `Christmas Book’ a bit early. Mainly because once I started `That Old Cape Magic’ I just gobbled it up. A very enjoyable read. For me, perhaps not as good as Mohawk or Empire Falls. I feel this book was more modest in its ambition whereas the others had a bolder scope and a wider range of characters but perceptive and moving nonetheless.
    From an English point of view this novel reminded me of the very witty writing of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. There was also an echo here of Alison Lurie’s marvellous The War Between the Tates. Like Lodge and Lurie, Russo writes with real warmth and seems to like and understand his characters and their foibles. It’s a relief sometimes to read something that remains hopeful and optimistic – especially at Christmas.


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m impressed, Mary — here I am still struggling to determine my “Christmas book(s)” (I usually want one contemporary, one older) and you have already finished yours. Of course, that means you now have to pick another, so we are pretty much in the same state.

    I agree that this book is more introspective and internally character-driven than some of Russo’s other novels — which I think also supplies greater scope for his comic writing, sometimes to excess. I hadn’t made the comparison with Lurie’s book, but you do make a very good point. I don’t know either Lodge or Bradbury well enough to comment there.

    Since Trevor mentioned in a comment on another post his search for a holiday read, I’d certainly agree with Mary that this Russo is an excellent contemporary choice, even if winter never makes an appearance. As for me, I’m leaning towards Edith Wharton (probably a reread of The Custom of the Country) for my classic pick); still at sea on what the contemporary one might be.


  19. Trevor Says:

    I have been thinking about picking up Russo’s Empire Falls, Kevin. I’d been thinking about it for years, but your good opinion of him has certainly made my first encounter with him imminent.

    For right now, though, my table is stacked. I will let you know so that I feel accountable: I started War and Peace a few nights ago. The problem is that the book is so large (the Pevear Volokhonsky hardback) that I can read it only at home, and that time hasn’t been available lately. It’ll come, though. That’s how I got through Moby-Dick last summer. On a more contemporary (almost) note, I think Sherry has picked me out a few books for Christmas that I’m particularly anxious for, including Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. A few years ago I was all excited to read that one and ended up buying The Green Knight instead — a very foreseeable problem you caused, Ms. Murdoch! I guess I was so disappointed when I got home that I didn’t even read it then and haven’t since. However, The Sea, the Sea was such a wonderful book to me, still haunting me, that I am anxious to try more Murdoch (The folio edition of that book, by the way, looks beautiful — love the illustrations). I don’t think I’ve ever gotten your opinion of her, but that can wait until I post my new review so that this thread keeps up with Russo.

    I think I shall schedule Russo for January or February. His cover for Empire Falls looks like it would suit my typical mood at that time of year :).


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Empire Falls was my first Russo and I have now read them all, except for the short story collection. That would be about as positive a recommendation as possible, so you do have something to look forward to. As Mary notes, That Old Cape Magic is less ambitious (in the sense of reportage) than Empire Falls or Mohawk — given where you now live, I think you’ll find them both interesting in the way they chronicle the decline of rural industrial America. Also, buy yourself a copy of Straight Man and keep it handy. It is a very funny look at academic politics in the English department of a not-very-good Pennsylvania university (some of which also show up in Cape Magic) — I am sure I need tease no more. At 416 pages, it looks long but I remember it as a very quick read despite that. That may be a reflection of my taste for “school” novels (and perhaps the fact we were living in Pittsburgh when I read it).

    It has been some years since I read Iris Murdoch — I was on a bit of a kick many years ago, but tired since they all seemed much the same. I do have a copy of the Folio edition of The Sea, The Sea and hope to get to it soon. I’m hoping that now that I am somewhat more mature (well, more experienced at least) I’ll find her work more rewarding.

    I certainly can’t see lugging War and Peace around for train reading — and I read the three volume Everyman’s Library version. Memory does say that it has enough narrative flow that you can set it aside for a while without any difficulty.


  21. Rick P Says:

    Christmas is usually when I try to take on a long book so that I can give it extended time.

    This year, my choices came down to Gone With The Wind, From Here To Eternity, Lonesome Dove and The Blind Assassin.

    I just chose and started this morning.

    Lonesome Dove it is.

    After that I hope to get to Something To Answer For by PH Newby. This is more out of curiousity than anything else.

    I wish you all great enjoyment with your Christmas reads. Have a great Holiday season.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: For some reason, I’ve had the impression you live in Toronto. Seems to me that someone who has read as much as you do and who still hasn’t read The Blind Assassin must have been away that year. If you do live in Toronto, whatever you do, don’t admit that in any tony Annex restaurant. 🙂


  23. Rick P Says:

    I do indeed live in Toronto. I have just always had this Atwood block. I have several of her books but she never quite makes the list.

    As you can probably tell by the books I mention, I have a lot of catching up to do.

    I read a lot of fiction up until my twenties. I’m in my mid forties now and I’ve just rediscovered my love of great fiction in the last couple of years. I’m a Chief Information Officer for a major mutual fund company so I was a leadership and business text junkie for quite a few years. My wife referred to them as soul killing books. But now I’m back and I expect to be an avid fiction reader for a long time.

    I’ll make sure not to mention my Atwood ignorance in public.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I understand completely — when I was publisher of the Calgary Herald, leadership and business texts occupied most of the reading time that I had available. And it was a joy to be able to get back to fiction.

    I was a major Atwood fan with her early novels (I am not a poetry reader) and your mention of The Blind Assassin did remind me that it was the last book of hers that I liked — she and I just went in different directions after that.

    Good luck with Lonesome Dove, another book that I have no read.


  25. Pre-Tournament Prep: 2010 TOB Reviews « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    […] KFC: “…the first 70 pages are so good, there is absolutely no way the rest of the book can stand up to them.” […]


  26. RickP Says:

    I didn’t know where to leave this NY Times article but when I read it, I instantly thought of you, Kevin. This is because of your love of Russo and your disdain for Here’s the Amazon article by Russo.


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Rick. As it happens, I’ve already posted a link to Russo’s essay in response to a comment from dovegreyreader on the White Crosses thread where she makes reference to K****e and A****n (she knows about my aversion to their business practices as well). I remain very perturbed that a company which offers such good services to readers (I know people love their e-readers and on-line book buying is a boon to all serious readers) feels the need to indulge in such ham-handed examples of “competition”: The conflicting sentiments that Russo found when he contacted other authors (there is a lot of good in Amazon, but, but, but…) are an echo of my concern.


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