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That Old Cape Magic: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – June 1, 2010

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Book Description
Following Bridge of Sighs—a national best seller hailed by The Boston Globe as “an astounding achievement” and “a masterpiece”—Richard Russo gives us 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.

A Q&A with Richard Russo

Question: Apparently there is a wedding phenomenon you have termed "Table 17." What exactly is that and how does it relate to this novel?

Richard Russo: A few years ago my wife and I were invited to a wedding and were seated at what was clearly a "leftover" table. It reminded me of the final teams who get into the NCAA tournament. You can tell by their seeding that they were the last ones in, that they almost didn't make the grade. Table 17 works thematically in the novel because being among strangers, not sure whether you belong, may be the main character's future if he can't find a way to slow his downward spiral.

Question: You have said that That Old Cape Magic began as a short story. What was the moment you knew it was calling out to be a novel?

Richard Russo: Griffin, my main character, begins the story on his way to a wedding with his father's urn in the trunk of his car. I planned for him to scatter the ashes (his past), put his future in danger at the wedding (his present) and then pull back from disaster at the last moment. But then he pulled over to the side of the road in his convertible to take a phone call from his mother, at the end of which a seagull sh**s on him. At that moment, in part because Griffin blames her, he and I both had a sinking feeling. You can resolve thematic issues of past, present and future in a twenty page story, but if you allow a sh**ting seagull into it, you’ve suddenly moved on to something much larger.

Question: Why did you choose the Cape?

Richard Russo: For some time I've been fascinated with the idea of "a finer place" (see Lucy Lynch and Bobby Marconi in Bridge of Sighs). I'm talking about both fiction and real life. Why do people believe that happiness is more likely to find you in one place than another? It has something with what you can and can't afford, what you think you'll one day be able to swing if things go well. Except that even when they go well, you discover it's still unaffordable, which gives the desired place a magical quality. The faster you run toward it, the faster it runs away from you. I chose the Cape because it's always been expensive and just keeps getting more so, but it could have been any number of similar places. For Griffin's parents, two academics, a house on the Cape would have always been just beyond their reach. One of their many dubious genetic gifts to Griffin is a sense that happiness is always on the horizon, never where you're standing. Very American, I think.

Question: That Old Cape Magic is book ended by two weddings and becomes the story of Griffin's own marriage as well as that of his parents and the impending one of his daughter. Is there some loaded charge to weddings that unleashes the past and threatens the future in a way unlike other events? Or, in other words, what were you up to in framing your story with two weddings?

Richard Russo: It probably won't surprise readers to discover that both my daughters were married during the time I was writing this book, which, if it does well, will pay for their weddings. One of our girls was married in London, which except for the expense made things easier on my wife and me. Living in the states, how much could we really be blamed for things that went wrong so far from home? Our other daughter was married in the coastal Maine town where we live, and her wedding was therefore larger. My wife and I feared that our families, who were largely unknown to each other and living on opposite sides of the country (not to mention the political spectrum), might be fissionable. Mostly we feared for the family of the groom, and maybe even the town, since we hoped to continue living there. In the second wedding of That Old Cape Magic I imagined an absolutely catastrophic wedding in hopes it might act as a talisman against real-life disaster, which it appears to have done.

Planning your children's weddings also gets you thinking back to your own and making the inevitable comparisons. My wife and I were grad-student poor when we got married in Tucson, and our parents were only marginally better off. Our honeymoon was four days in Mexico. We'd booked the sleeper car but managed to arrive late, actually jumping onto the moving train. They'd given our sleeper to someone else and we had to sit in the aisles on our luggage for several hours until seats became available. Neither of us got a wink of sleep and, naturally, when we arrived in Mazatlan early the next morning, our room wasn't ready. We changed into bathing suits, went to the beach and immediately fell asleep under the brutal tropical sun. By the time we woke up we were burned so badly we couldn't touch each other for the rest of the trip. But we were young and the tacos were good and so was the tequila and we'd brought plenty of books and we talked about our future and who we'd be in that future, and pretty damn quick it was thirty-five years later. That's just about how long the Griffins have been married when That Old Cape Magic opens.

Question: Griffin's parents, both academics trapped in what they call the "mid f***ing west," are such wonderful, sometimes maddening, often hilarious, always surprising characters. You've mined the satiric potential of academia before, most notably in Straight Man. Have you been longing to go back there?

Richard Russo: I thought I'd got all the academic satire out of my system with Straight Man, but apparently not. Actually, since writing that novel I've entered another world—movie making—that would be equally idiotic except that instead of academic scrip it involves real money. In this novel, because Griffin's a former screenwriter, I got to compare lunacies. It wasn't a fair fight, of course. Academics are really the only ones in their weight class (heavy).

Question: At the start of the novel Griffin is a man in his mid fifties who seemingly has everything going for him, a great marriage, a great daughter, the career he aspired to, basically everything he had on his wish list when first venturing out in adulthood. Then, within a year, he watches it all come unglued. It’s amazing how quickly that can happen, no?

Richard Russo: That's the other similarity between this book and Straight Man. In both novels we watch men who are tenured in life. Safe, in other words. But there's just this one little thread on the sweater. You know you should clip it, not pull it, but there are no scissors at hand and what's the worst that can happen? The answer to that question, in this instance, is That Old Cape Magic.

Question: Have you actually ever been to a wedding where a guest was trapped in a tree?

Richard Russo: I myself have never been to a wedding where a guest got stuck in a tree, but we're attending a wedding on the Cape this summer and I have high hopes.

(Photo © Elena Seibert) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Crafting a dense, flashback-filled narrative that stutters across two summer outings to New England (and as many weddings), Russo (Empire Falls) convincingly depicts a life coming apart at the seams, but the effort falls short of the literary magic that earned him a Pulitzer. A professor in his 50s who aches to go back to screenwriting, Jack Griffin struggles to divest himself of his parents. Lugging around, first, his father's, then both his parents' urns in the trunk of his convertible, he hopes to find an appropriate spot to scatter their ashes while juggling family commitments—his daughter's wedding, a separation from his wife. Indeed, his parents—especially his mother, who calls her son incessantly before he starts hearing her from beyond the grave—occupy the narrative like capricious ghosts, and Griffin inherits the worst attributes of both. Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered—Griffin wading into the surf to try to scatter his father's ashes, his wheelchair-bound father-in-law plummeting off a ramp and into a yew—the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo's earlier work. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1 Reprint edition (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400030919
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400030910
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (262 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #108,375 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Hardcover
Richard Russo made his mark in the literary world with his books Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs. His newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, is about a middle-aged man that is having a difficult time coping with reality. Yet, while Jack Griffin is having trouble letting go of the past, the present is filled with slapstick-type comedy that Mr. Russo delivers with impeccable timing. And this, gives the reader a future filled with searches into their own life, lighten with comedy. It really was an enjoyment to read.

Well, let's get a little more in depth, shall we? As I mentioned prior, Jack Griffin, is the focal point of the story. He is a well-respected professor going through a mid-life crisis. At 55, he just lost his dad and will soon lose his daughter (she is getting married) this forces Jack to rethink his life. Most of the book is flashbacks from Jack's life. Jack's childhood was filled with despair. His parents were highly trained and brilliant professors, but their attitudes forced them to work demeaning jobs, well below their status.

As such, they also had a difficult time coping with reality. Always believing "the grass was greener on the other side" This leads to the title of the book. During the family's summer vacations, they would sing Frank Sinatra's song, That Old Black Magic, but since they vacationed in Cape Cod, they changed it to, That Old Cape Magic. This is key.
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Since reading Straight Man, I have eagerly anticipated the release of each new Richard Russo novel, and That Old Cape Magic was no exception. The danger in anticipation, of course, is that the real thing just might not live up to your expectations. Following Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls is no easy task, either. Can you guess where this humble review is headed? Yep, I was a bit disappointed in TOCM. Not overly so, and it's still a fine book and a very good story, and Russo still does his amazing job of capturing the essence of fascinating, but somehow still believable characters. His delicate mixing of humor and tragedy is still strong. His ability to get the reader into the scene is amazing, and he writes the marital argument better than anyone, I think. This book was missing some of the more comedic foils in Russo's other books, but he's still drawn together an impressive cast. So what's wrong with the book? Maybe it's just a bit short. Maybe there was more story to tell. That was the feeling I came away with. If you are already a Russo fan, by all means, pick it up and read it; it's better than 99% of the other novels on the shelf. If you are new to Russo, however, save this one for later. Go back to Nobody's Fool or The Risk Pool or the Pulitzer Prize winning Empire Falls. Solid three stars for now, but I reserve the right to come back and bump it a bit after I've reflected for a while.
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Jack Griffin is an irresolute 50-something guy driving around with a lot of dead weight, both figuratively and literally. As the novel opens, he is placing the ashes of his dead father (9 months in the urn now) in the wheel well of his car, (they have been in the trunk) intending to scatter them in Cape Cod. He is meeting his wife and daughter there for the wedding of his daughter's best friend. During this time, the lacunae of memory begin to break free and combat with the credo and convictions of his consciousness and close orbit. The bittersweet reminiscence of family vacations on the Cape with his parents and the tart taste of the "Truro Accord" he made with his wife on their honeymoon over three decades ago provide the propellant fuel for this story of late middle-age angst and awakening.

Russo navigates the banks of this novel with a constrained and firm hand on the tiller, with not too much wind in the sails and with a decidedly inner-directed course. And he seamlessly flows from the sober and contemplative to an uproarious physical comedy, placing him in the same league as Bellow, Roth, and Irving, with a laconic protagonist possessing tragically comic (or comically tragic) inner demons. Griffin's inability to complete a short story that he started years ago, for example, opens a chasm to a dark abyss that plagues him up and down Route 6 through the Cape, through the story. A rehearsal dinner for another wedding is headed for an imbroglio when a wheelchair ramp does the unexpected.

Russo triumphs when he concentrates on Griffin, a thoroughly three-dimensional character whose perceptions and failings and desires are authentic and prismatic. It is Griffin's character that illuminates his parents' and underscores the pathos of his wife, Joy.
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I would like to think of Russo as being one of my favorite authors but don't feel qualified to make that statement since this is only the third book I've read by him....Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs being the other two. But I will say that I've loved all three and look forward to going back and reading some of his earlier works. So when writing this review, I'm not sure if his writing style has changed or if he has, in fact, gotten better. All I know is that I think he's a great storyteller and That Old Cape Magic keeps proving that point over and over with each page you turn.

I've been so looking forward to August '09 because there were four books coming out that I've been eager to read....South of Broad by Pat Conroy, Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich, The White Queen by Philippa Gregory and That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. I thought I'd start out with the Russo book and right off the bat I've hit a home run. I loved it!!!!!

There are many authors out there who write stories with very little dialogue and, most times, they are not my favorite books simply because the author's storytelling capabilities aren't good enough to pull this off. In Russo's book, I didn't care if the characters said one word to each other because the story he was telling was just so interesting that I failed to notice the lack of discourse.

And this is an author who definitely loves his bridges. As I've already mentioned, I've only read three of Russo's books but each one prominently mentions a bridge. In Empire Falls, it was the Iron Bridge that separated the mansion of the Whiting's from the rest of blue collar Empire Falls.
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