TOB 2010: Burnt Shadows vs. That Old Cape Magic

March 12, 2010

I have read both of these and I do have a decided favorite. One of the books is a sweeping epic, spanning multiple decades and generations. The other is an intimate portrait of two marriages which, incidentally, also spans a couple generations. The sweeping epic is about the world, class, nationality, and urgent matters of national security and individual rights. The intimate portrait is about class, regionalism, and urgent matters of interpersonal relationships.

I love close examinations of individual lives or moments in time. Nabokov and Woolf, two of my favorite authors, are masters (in two unique ways) of that approach to literature. Of course, I also enjoy Tolstoy and Dos Passos each of whose scope is much broader. But my first love is the intimate. Russo should have a leg up here, but my pick was Shamsie.

Burnt Shadows, as I pointed out in my review, has stunning passages that cut to the heart of romance, class-based tensions, and family squabbles. Shamsie gives little ground, I think, to Russo on insights into people and their interactions. Basically, I think she and Russo take on very similar issues, including the effect the past and parents have on the present and children. Shamsie is more ambitious and, I think, more successful.

Russo only prevails on humor, but his humor did not mesh with mine nearly so well as it did with others. Perhaps it is my distance from academe, my relative unfamiliarity with summering on the Cape, or my relative (to Russo’s) youth. Maybe it is that it was yet one more book that involves an awkward disposal-of-ashes scene. Whatever the case, there was little that excited me about this book. Russo is definitely a talented craftsman. I have no doubt he produced precisely the book he wanted. But in the end, I would as soon have tried something else.

There are passages from Shamsie, however, that I will happily take with me and treasure.

…or Spectacles Bridge, where they had been standing, looking into the water, when a small silver fish leapt out of Konrad’s reflected chest and dived into her reflection and she said, “Oh,” and stepped back, almost losing her balance, so he had to put his arm around her waist to steady her.

Burnt Shadows wins my vote because of how much it accomplishes in the pursuit of grand ambition, how beautifully close moments are rendered as history swirls around the characters. That Old Cape Magic is an enjoyable read, Burnt Shadows is a delectable one.

[My contrarian view finally prevails: Burnt Shadows is declared a Round 1 winner by Nic Brown. No one is perfect in the TOB 2010 Contest, but the three formerly perfects maintain their one point lead over the field.]

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

November 25, 2009

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.]