I adore Richard Russo, with his simple but powerful storylines, his colorful yet identifiable characters, his rollicking sense of the absurd, his wit and his penetrating insights. That Old Cape Magic does not disappoint, and if it is another story about a dysfunctional family and the lasting consequences of that dysfunction, it is also a story about the human condition, our human condition.
Griffin is a former LA screenwriter of hack movies turned creative writing professor at a small northeastern college. He has a wife he loves, a daughter he adores, and a good life. But not a contented one, for he is haunted by his parents—one alive and one whose cremated ashes have been traveling in the trunk of his car for the past year. His parents were both college English professors made bitter by their perceived failure to achieve the academic greatness they felt was their due. Their intellectual snobbery, their fierce competitiveness, their rudeness towards all things smaller than their own egos, their serial philandering, their constant moving from one job to the next, and their toxic parenting style all have a stranglehold on poor Griffin’s psyche. Griffin believes he has successfully exorcised his parents from his life, but his wife recognizes his unresolved relationship with his parents as the deep-rooted source of his discontent, and is not sure how much more she can put up with.
The novel begins and ends on Cape Cod, whose beach homes have always symbolized for Griffin’s parents the pinnacle of academic success which has eluded them. In the beginning, Griffin is attending the wedding of his daughter’s best friend, and has a moment of near lucidity about himself and his family which he is unable to sustain. When next we meet Griffin, it is a year later. He has been back in LA living a miserable existence of self-loathing, and he is separated from his wife. His mother is dead, but her voice lives on inside Griffin’s head. Griffin and his ex are both bringing “dates” to their own daughter’s wedding on the Cape, and a hilarious series of events ensue which have the power to force an emotional and psychological awakening on the part of our hapless protagonist.
The stories that make up Griffin’s life are as hysterically funny as they are heartbreakingly sad, and That Old Cape Magic is that rare book that can make you cry and laugh at the same time, while giving you a deeper appreciation of the human spirit.