That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

My inclination is to be grumpy and petty. But that wouldn’t be fair to Richard Russo. This is a good book, only not a good book for me. My sense of humor and Russo’s do not quite mesh. He has a few writing ticks, at least in this book, that I found annoying after a couple hundred pages. The story engaged me, but did not compel me.

The book is about marriage and parent-child relationships. Parents, of course, provide a role model for their children. Children often do not get to see inside any grown-up relationship beside their own parents’ relationship and, therefore, often handle situations the way they saw their parents handle similar situations. In this book, the couple with whom the reader is to identify consists of a woman, Joy Griffin, from a lovingly dysfunctional family and a man, Jack Griffin, from a pathetically and meanly dysfunctional family. The story is told from the perspective of Jack Griffin (“Griffin”).

Griffin and Joy suffer the usual subtle misalignments that often occur over long relationships. They start their marriage with a plan, the Great Truro Accord, but there was no written contract. As can happen in such situations, disagreements over the details and, finally, even the basic terms build. The most prominent clause on which Griffin and Joy have slipped out of agreement is the parent clause. By the time their daughter fledges, Joy and Griffin need to renegotiate key terms.

Griffin’s ideal had been to leave his own firmly middle-class but stubbornly elitist parents to languish in the “Mid-fucking-west” and Joy’s wealthy but intellectually mediocre parents locked in their gated community in southern California. Joy shows no real interest in engaging Griffin’s parents, from whom Griffin tries to shield her, but has always had a good relationship with her family and wants to keep it that way.

The generosity of Joy’s parents ensures that reality more closely approaches Joy’s utopia. Meanwhile, though Griffin is able to maintain a physical separation between his parents and his family, their snobbishly discontented perspective has infiltrated the marital suite. No one is happy.

The first third of the book consists primarily of a retelling of Griffin’s childhood and his parent’s marriage. They were star Ivy-league students who unhappily ended up as mediocre academics in a state university in Indiana. They are unhappy with their careers, their marriage, the world. Rather than focus on Griffin, they neglect him. They neglect each other as well, having serial affairs. Griffin’s father has affairs to satisfy his lust, his mother for revenge. Meanwhile, they scorn anyone without an Ivy-league pedigree.

They come closest to happiness when they summer on the Cape. They sing “That Old Black Magic” but substitute “Cape” for “Black”. Even their Cape summers are hampered by frustration. When looking for Cape property to buy, all of it is either “Wouldn’t Have It As a Gift” or “Can’t Afford It”. They are miserable.

As a boy, the reluctant witness to his parents’ myriad quarrels and recriminations, Griffin had imagined that he must be the one keeping them together. It was his mother who eventually disabused him of this bizarre notion….At [a wedding] reception, half in her cups, she’d assured Griffin, “Good heavens, no, it wasn’t you. What kept us together was ‘That Old Cape Magic.’ Remember how we used to sing it every year on the Sagamore?”

There is some humor in the book, not unlike the scene I just excerpted. It more often left me with a disheartened grimace than a chuckle. Griffin’s parents are caricatures, laughable more for the combination of their narcissism and their impotent sense of superiority than anything else. While there is fun in laughing at such people, it is a mean-spirited fun that depresses rather than invigorates.

Griffin, laudably, grows up ashamed of their pitiable egoism, their lack of compassion, their narcissism. Unfortunately, he inherited or learned at least two of those three flaws. He does not see this, but Joy must deal with it. As she describes it, Griffin is “congenitally unhappy”. It is difficult to be happy in a marriage with a “congenitally unhappy” person.

There are other storylines. Joy’s not-quite-endearingly stupid family never really accepts Griffin, which is fine with Griffin. Laura, their daughter, is growing up and dating and getting serious with a young man. She seems to have spent the better part of her childhood afraid that Joy and Griffin would split. There are several social occasions on the Cape each with its own hijinx, a comic set piece or five, and family trouble.

As I said, take this review with a grain of salt. This is not the type of book I really enjoy. The jokes generally evoked from me a wry smile rather than mirth. Others may connect much more pleasantly with Russo’s style, his subject, and his comedy. If you read it, I hope you do.

For another excellent perspective on the book, check out Kevin From Canada.

[Update: On re-reading Kevin’s review, I realize he used one of the same quotes and mentioned several of the same early bits. Do note that his review was written first. I am not going to change mine. Having not read his review recently, I didn’t recall what he’d quoted. I think the quote is a nice, compact summary of Griffin’s relationship with his parents. They truly did not endure anything for his benefit. Before posting next time on something a blogger I read has already reviewed, I will compare before I publish so I can edit out such redundancies. Mea culpa.]

5 Responses to That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

  1. Kerry: Definitely no need for a mea culpa. The fact that you (who were lukewarm on the book) and I (who loved it) found the same quote to illustrate our experience is, I think, an indication that that quote pretty much summarizes the book. I think it does and perceptive readers can take our different reactions to it and extend them into our overall impressions.

    I think those who read both our reviews (and reactions) of this book will find that we both found the same aspects predominate — they landed with me, they did not land with you (and I salute you for an even-handed assessment).

    Grudgingly, I will have to admit that so far, American book prize juries agree with your assessment, not mine. There are still a couple to go however.

  2. Kerry says:


    Thank you. I think you are exactly right about the same aspects predominating. I half suspect I simply have not had enough contact with the Cape and disgruntled academics to appreciate some of the scenes and humor as you did. In other words, I really do not think it is a failing of the book, just a mismatch between me and it.

    Russo is very good and even though I was not the right audience, the book is well and engagingly written.

    As for American book prize juries, I would take more pride in being out of agreement…ah well…

  3. I sometimes find I’ve picked the same quotes as another blogger, I tend to find that quite interesting, suggesting that those quotes as Kevin says really do summarise the book.

    It’s not so much an error, as cross-validation…

  4. Kerry says:

    I like that Max: cross-validation.

  5. […] HW: “My sense of humor and Russo’s do not quite mesh.” […]

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