I just finished That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo. It's a book which intersects with my own experiences in a few ways. I first started thumbing through this book a few years on a stormy Columbus Day weekend in Brewster, shortly after it was first published in hard cover. Russo's novel centers on the story of a small family -- a couple of university professors with a single son -- and their yearly experience with Cape Cod. They love the Cape, but it never quite lives up to their expections. Nonetheless, they kept coming back year after year.
My own family has it's own experiences with the Cape. My first visit was when I was about 12 and the family took a ride up north while on a stay with relatives. We drove all the way up to Provincetown and walked around Commercial Street downtown. Some ten years later I returned to P-town and it had become a much different place -- quite outre compared to my home town in Connecticut, but fascinating to watch. But Provincetown is just a single community on the Cape and we found others that were much more comfortable for us when I returned some 15 years later with my own small family. And I'd say that's one of the things that gives the Cape a kind of magic. I suspect every visiting family has its own version of the Cape which acts like a magnet and draws them back year after year.
In the novel, Jack Griffin is visiting the Cape to attend a wedding, but just crossing the Sagamore Bridge brings back a fusillade of memories about his parents and their dysfunctional relationship. His elderly Dad had died recently, but Jack's mother is still only a phone call away and is quick to offer a caustic critique about Jack's own marriage to his wife Joy and her extended family. The novel shifts between the current day and all of those memories. We learn that Jack's own marriage is on shaky ground. Can two people from radically different families manage to bury all of those differences and wind their own way through life together? Russo explores this theme in real time with Jack and Joy, but by extension we dip back into the years before and watch as the relationship of his parents goes through its own twists and turns.
Russo makes the reader work, but we do learn to care about these characters and their attempts to live a life that's meaningful even as some of their dreams fall apart. We can learn a lot about our spouses by watching their parents and Russo forces the reader to take a hard look at Jack's parents and the differences between them and Joy's bouyant parents Harve and Jill.
The novel lurches ahead with its own momentum, framed by two weddings -- one held on the Cape and one in Southern Maine. And by the end, we are willing to suspend disbelief and agree that the old Cape does exert a kind of magic that mends lives in mysterious ways.
This book isn't for everybody. The constant flashbacks and interaction between Jack and the voices in his head require close reading to follow. But the setting on the Cape and in Maine draws us in and Russo interweaving narrative eventually tells us a lot about these people and their stories. As a writer, I like it when an author conveys a real sense of place and we can smell the salt air of the Cape as Russo's characters move from place to place.