It’s easy to judge a book by its cover; or, rather, it’s difficult not to. There are certain aesthetic rules that guide me when choosing books to read—not without exception of course, but operating as loose patterns of consumption. You will probably never see me reading a mass-market paperback with chunky embossed lettering. Likewise, any hardcover whose back cover is devoted entirely to a gigantic photograph of a silver-haired author dressed in all white is probably out of the question, especially if the author is posing with a sprightly golden retriever in a lawn chair. If it reminds me of Hudson News, I usually avoid it.
But when I decided to read Richard Russo’s new book, That Old Cape Magic, I broke lots of my own rules. Russo hasn’t quite reached a Dan Brown or Patricia Cornwell level of fame—his face, which is somehow simultaneously haunting and paternal, does not grace the back cover of his book—but his latest novel does indeed depict lawn chairs on its cover. It’s an idyllic beach scene befitting a quite captivating title, and it got me at a vulnerable moment while I was missing the beach and the sun and looking for some literary fun.
That Old Cape Magic centers around two weddings, one at the novel’s opening and one at its close. Jack Griffin, a former LA screenwriter who has abandoned glamorous city life for academic predictability, marriage, and fatherhood in a Connecticut college town, has struggled since birth to break free from the large personalities and suffocating demands of his parents. At the novel’s start, he attends the wedding of his daughter Laura’s best friend, while carrying around his father’s ashes and searching for a place to scatter them. Though he grew up in the Midwest, Cape Cod was the site of beloved family summer vacations, and his search for the appropriate resting spot for his father represents the expression of a deep form of nostalgia.
Yet in the process of searching, he comes to realize that he continues to harbor deep resentments for both of his parents. In the second part of the book, which takes place a year later at his daughter’s Maine wedding, Griffin must learn to come to terms with his parents if he hopes to fix his marriage and his life.
A good deal of the novel is devoted to explaining the dynamics of screenwriting, and the book itself reads like a type of narrative screenplay, character-driven and scenic. Russo’s depiction of academia is spot-on—complete with competition, sexual tension, and intense superiority complexes. Because it is a book about writing—not only screenplays, but also academic papers and even short stories—it benefits from a character with a full interior landscape.
Yet while Griffin and his parents are well-developed characters, they risk becoming archetypes, often dominating the stage and blocking out many of the arguably more interesting side characters—Griffin’s wife Joy, their screenwriter friend in LA, and Laura’s childhood acquaintance Sunny Kim. There are times when Russo seems to go just a little bit too far with his clever prose and cheeky dialogue, referring to the “mid-f*cking-west” or the “fundamentally crappy world” just one too many times. When at the end of the novel the story makes a sharp turn into slapstick comedy—with a wedding rehearsal dinner turning into a trip to the hospital—it seems clear that something has gone slightly awry.
Still, despite any minor structural errors, the novel remains charming. It ends on a strong note and puts a close to most of the temporary annoyances that dot its path. Reading That Old Cape Magic is like experiencing the process of nostalgia in fast forward; now that it’s over, I long for the good times we had together, and the comforting way it made me feel.