Friday, August 14, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Much like memories of Cape Cod, Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic played with my mind as I travelled up and down Routes 6/6A and 28 with Jack Griffin. There’s something about the Cape that can do that. Are these the bright, cloudless days with hydrangeas a color of blue that can’t be described or the gray, misty days with everything hidden in rolling fog banks? Were the vacations there as happy and carefree as I remember them?

Book Description from Amazon
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.

On happiness (real or perceived): …he’d tried but failed to keep his parents out. Right from the start (of the story, of his marriage), despite his best efforts, they’d managed to insinuate themselves. When Joy suggested they honeymoon on the Maine coast, Griffin convinced her that what they needed was a dose of the old Cape magic, that weakest of marital spells. In Truro they’d made plans for a life based on what they foolishly thought were their own terms, Joy articulating what she wanted, Griffin, tellingly, what he didn’t want (a marriage that even remotely resembled his partnes’, as if this negative were a nifty substitute for an unimagined positive). Even as he rejected their values, he’d allowed many of their bedrock assumptions—that happiness was a place you could visit but never own, for instance—to burrow deep.
Cape Cod vs. Coastal Maine: The rugged maine coastline was stunning, Griffin had to admit, the light so pure it almost hurt. He couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if his parents had fallen in love with this part of the world instead of the Cape. Certainly it would have been more affordable, but that begged an obvious question: would they really have wanted something they could afford? After all, much of the Cape’s allure was its shimmering elusiveness, the magical way it receded before them year after year, the stuff of dreams. Coastal Maine, by contrast, seemed not just real but battered by reality. Where Cape Cod somehow managed to vie the impression that July lasted all year, Maine reminded you, even in lush late spring, of its long, harsh winters, of snowdrifts that rotted baseboards and splintered latticework, of relentless winds that howled in the eaves and scoured the paint, leaving gutters rusted white with salt.

The perfect Christmas tree: Griffin came to understand that the perfect Christmas tree was a lot like the perfect house on the Cape, first because it didn’t exist in the real world, and second because all the imperfect trees fell into two categories. The first was the all-too-familiar Wouldn’t have It As a Gift, and the second applied to just one tree: Well, I Guess It’ll Have to Do.

Predictability: Late middle age, he [Griffin] was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.
Being Plumb: …he became aware of an unfamiliar but extremely pleasurable feeling. How to describe it? Plumb. He was feeling plumb. Okay, may not completely, but no more than half bubble off. Plum some. As good as could be expected. He wondered if plumb might be another word for happy.

I struggled through parts of That Old Cape Magic I thought tedious. In retrospect, I realized that my reading of Griffin’s travels needed to be tedious while waiting patiently for him to sort everything out—the ties of parents, in-laws, friends, and career. In the end, it’s not the perfect Christmas tree, the perfect vacation destination, or perfection itself. It’s a "moment of grace" that comes unexpectly and demands that you sieze it.

Finished on August 14, 2009
Rating: 4/5 (Fiction Scale)
Pages: 261
Publisher: Knopf
Copyright: 2009
Format: Hardcover
Dedication: For Barbara, always


While reading That Old Cape Magic, I spent a day with the GrandDogs. Louie (while he has learned to be very quiet) does not yet differentiate between good things to chew on vs. bad things to chew on. As Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."


debnance said...

My copy is waiting for me at the library. I need to go pick it up right now!

Marcia said...

I will be eager to see your thoughts on TOCM, Debbie! There are definitely mixed reviews out there. Once I realized that Griffin was incapable of moving along any faster, I was much more comfortable with the story. Russo, through Griffin, gave me a lot to think about.

Les said...

Hooray!! I was thrilled to see a post from you, Marcia!! Sorry this wasn't a huge winner for you, but it still sounds like something I might like to read. Eventually. I still have Bridge of Sighs (in hardcover!) waiting to be read.

Hope Louie enjoyed his portion of the book. :)