Wednesday, June 01, 2011

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic begins and ends with weddings attended by many of the same people.  But, despite the overlap in the guest list, and the fact that the two weddings are barely one year apart, they could hardly have been more different. 

As the book begins, Jack Griffin and his wife, Joy, are making their separate ways to Cape Cod to attend the wedding of their daughter’s best friend.  Another university year has ended, and Jack, too impatient to wait one more day for Joy to finish up her administrative work at the school, has left for the Cape without her.  Technically, however, he is not alone since he carries his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car and plans to dispose of them somewhere along his route to the wedding. 

The Griffins, who have been married for more than three decades, have weathered lean times and tensions with the in-laws to carve out a rather comfortable existence for themselves.  They have, in fact, attained the lifestyle that Jack’s own parents always yearned for, but never achieved for themselves – all of it centered on their work at a respected liberal arts college in Connecticut.  For Jack, driving to Cape Cod for the wedding is a bit like coming home.  As a boy, he spent part of each summer vacationing with his parents on the Cape, and it was where he and Joy had honeymooned.  All things considered, Jack Griffin is satisfied with his life.

One short year later, Jack is driving to the coast of Maine for his daughter’s wedding, but much has changed.  He is still carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk, but this year his father’s urn has been joined by a second one containing the ashes of Jack’s mother.  Like last year, he and Joy are making their separate ways to the wedding – but this time each of them has brought along a date.  The flaws in their marriage, obvious during the first wedding weekend, have seemingly doomed it just one year later.

That Old Cape Magic is told from Jack Griffin’s perspective, the reader ensconced in Jack’s head for a series of flashbacks going all the way back to his boyhood.  Jack is an introspective man and, as he considers the events of his childhood and his relationship with his parents, the reader begins to understand Jack Griffin, the man.  He has reached a threshold in his life – his marriage seems over, his parents are dead, his only child has just married, he has been granted a leave of absence from the university, his Hollywood screenwriting job is not going well - and he has no idea what comes next.    

That Old Cape Magic might be one man’s story, but Jack Griffin’s contemporaries will easily identify with it and the realization that little things, given enough time, and occurring in the right combination, can ultimately chip away at one’s whole world.  Russo uses a good bit of humor (his daughter’s wedding rehearsal is genuinely hilarious) and over-the-top characters (Jack’s parents are unforgettable snobs of the first order), however, that make this one fun despite its rather somber theme.

Rated at: 5.0

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