As a child, Jack Griffin vacationed on Cape Cod with his parents, academics who sought respite on the Cape each summer after begrudgingly spending 11 months of the year in the Midwest.
Years later, Jack and his new wife, Joy, honeymooned on Cape Cod, dreamily making plans for their life (thereafter referred to as the Great Truro Accord) which included “A ‘professor’s house’ . . . a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and comfortable chairs for reading, a big OED on its own stand, a small stereo for quiet, contemplative music.”
In middle-age, Jack and Joy return to the Cape with most, if not all, of their dreams having been realized, to attend the first of two weddings that bookend That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo’s reflective new novel.
This time, however, there is more that brings Jack to the Cape than the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. He is here to find the right spot to scatter his father’s ashes, which have been traveling with him in the trunk of his car for nearly a year. This weekend begins what will become the most transformative year in their lives. By the time Jack and Joy reach a second wedding at the end of the book, the tectonic plates of their lives have shifted, leading them to ask the question: if we could do it all again, would we? Is what we imagined and achieved in our lives what we really want?
Russo’s novel is ultimately a quiet study of middle age—of the time in between the harried pace of raising small children and the slow, muddied walk of our waning years. Russo’s use of symbolism is far from subtle, but his richly drawn characters redeem the novel. He has painted a portrait of Jack’s parents so vivid, you can practically hear the crisp, patronizing texture to their voices when they speak of, well, anything.
Over the course of the novel, Jack comes to realize what a profound impact his parents have had on his life, despite his very best efforts to prevent just such a thing. Russo’s characterizations of the Griffins will have the same effect on the reader, living long after the last page has been turned.
Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.