This is the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.
Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father’s ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura’s best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents’ respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that’s now thirty years old and has largely come true. He’d left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they’d moved into an old house full of character; and they’d started a family. Check, check and check.
But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura’s, on the coast of Maine, Griffin’s chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?
That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter’s new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written.
The following is a review lifted in its entirety by a fellow named Will Byrnes, because he said it all so much better than I could.
The title refers to a modification of the song “That Old Black Magic,” a tune sung with verve and hope by narrator Jack Griffin’s parents when they would cross the bridge into Cape Cod every summer for one month of relief from eleven months of misery. Each of the book’s eleven chapters connects to some aspect of Cape Cod in Jack’s life, from summer vacations there as a kid, to his honeymoon to the wedding of his daughter’s friend, and later his daughter’s wedding.
Place is important to the story beyond Cape Cod. Jack’s parents, both from upstate New York, aspired to live and teach in Ivy, or near-Ivy League institutions in the northeast, but their Ivy-League degrees are not sufficient to gain them Ivy-League careers and they are relegated to the “mid-fucking-west.” His wife’s parents, and thus her familial connections, are in Republican, suburban California. Living in Connecticut offers strains to her as well.
Along with Cape Cod as a central image, the relationship of Jack to his parents is a core concern, familiar turf for Russo. How much of any of us is truly our own? How much are we influenced, formed by our parents? How much of them can we set aside, escape, embrace and still be separate people? How much of what we want is really our own, and not a carry-forward of our parents dreams? In career, in marriage, in family? Jack struggles with trying to live his own life. His parents are always in his thoughts. He is even toting his father’s ashes about with him, planning to scatter them in the cape, struggling to actually do the deed.
Jack has been married to Joy for 34 years, and they have had their ups and downs. Once a Hollywood screenwriter of modest accomplishment, he returned east for a college teaching post. His dream or his parents? His dream or Joy’s, who had wanted him to move away from screenwriting to teaching? The pull of LA remains strong, work for him, family for her.
The central action of the story centers on the viability of Jack and Joy’s marriage. Personally, I felt it hitting a bit too close to home at times. Not so much in the specifics. My life has been very different from Jack’s, but we are the same age and have both gone through the deep emotional scarring that long-term relationships can entail. As a veteran of those wars, I recognize the verity of long, silent car rides, uncomfortable silences, changes in how one views one’s mate, old secrets exposed, private tears seen. I suppose it is a good thing that Russo made me squirm with this familiarity. That his writing hits home in so personal a way reinforces the fact that he knows of what he speaks.
There is significant craft at work here, as one would expect from a master writer of Russo’s caliber. He parallels the pining of Jack’s partner Tommy for Jack’s wife, Joy, with that of young (ironically named) Sunny Kim, for his daughter Laura. He offers significant hooks to parental engagement, from the ashes Jack is toting, and never quite getting around to scattering, to the voice of his mother in his head. Water is used for its lachrymose and rebirth purposes. Is it stretching too far to wonder if Jack Griffin was named as he was in support of his dual nature, as part Hollywood guy and part academic? There are bits of humor here, and some are pretty funny, but I found that in the overall feel of the book, most of the humor did not do much for me. Maybe it was just my personal reaction, having been brought back to dark days. For folks who did not vibrate with such feelings it is probably a lot funnier.
This is no Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs. While Russo offers a multi-generational view of a family here, the story is more individual and less social, less big-picture historical and more how the history of one family affects their descendants today, Richard Russo light. That works too.