Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. His characters are fallibly true to life but still endearing. The small town going nowhere settings are well drawn. The reader gets the view from the covered porch, creaking on a rocking chair under the leaky eaves.

Like Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic is a literary beach book. It reads more like commercial fiction (along the lines of Tom Wolfe) than like literary fiction (his usual genre.) It is quite similar to his Straight Man in mocking academia and men in midlife crises. Both are laugh out loud funny.

That Old Cape Magic adds a new twist: the protagonist, Griffin, is coming to terms with his dying parents. They were bitter, judgmental and intellectually aloof snobs. Griffin has spent his life trying not to be like them, but the more he tries to dig himself out of their rut, the further in he goes. The beach settings work well: Griffin is like a car stuck in the sand. His mother haunts him first by cell phone and then like a ghost. Or is the voice his own?

Russo apparently wrote this novel in the wake of his mother’s death. He balances the gravity of aging, death and marital problems with almost slapstick humor. Weddings and family get-togethers go spectacularly wrong.

Sometimes humor came at the expense of character development. The in-laws were amusing but a bit cartoonish. Griffin’s wife and especially his daughter were too good to be true. I never really understood why Griffin felt so estranged from his wife. Her marital transgression was rather abstract. Griffin’s English professor parents, however, were great characters, full of depth and tragic comedy.

Griffin is a screen writer who narrates in the style of his genre. This was fun and fresh except when reverting to Hollywood clichés. There were even screen directions. At one point a character casts herself as Susan Sarandon. It’s a novel begging to be a movie and yet not a lot happens. The narrative structure of two weddings was cinematically familiar and predictable.

Janet Maslin of the NYT was scathing in her review: “That Old Cape Magic is the only Richard Russo novel that has its own theme song. It’s also the only Russo book that needs one. And Mr. Russo supplies enough props, picture postcards and pratfalls to underscore the fragility of his latest venture.” Maslin went on to call the novel “entertaining but facile.” Ouch.

I still highly recommend That Old Cape Magic, especially if you’re looking for something light and entertaining but still substantial and well-written. Perfect for Labor Day Weekend. Can you believe that it's already September?

I felt like a character in a Russo novel myself. I was looking forward to finishing That Old Cape Magic after having brunch with some English professor friends. I settled into the hammock only to have it collapse underneath me. Once my teenaged son managed to stop laughing, he asked, “How much did you eat at the brunch?” I did say to a friend that I needed a lit firecracker to get me out of the hammock and back to work!


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42 comments:

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Sarah
Thanks for a great review. This will be a book I will put on my to read list. I hope you did not hurt yourself when your hammock broke.
Tracy :)

tina said...

It didn't take a lit firecracker-but a collapse does the job just as well!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I love Richard Russo and will read this regardless of what Janet Maslin says.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Thanks so much for the healing thoughts! You are simply lovely.

Love that photo! So funny. That must have been quite the shock to have it break like that. Hope you didn't get bumped and bruised!

Thanks for another well-rounded book review!

Sarah Laurence said...

Tracy, all the rain in June and July must have rotted the ropes, but it also made our grass grow thicker than ever. My fall was well cushioned. Hmm, maybe that’s why my back is aching. Or it could just be all the time at the computer writing lately.

Tina, yep, I’m back to work.

Pattinase, I usually love Janet Maslin’s reviews. In this case I could see where she was coming from, but I still thoroughly enjoyed Russo’s latest novel. You’ll appreciate that the ending takes place in Maine.

Alyson, one of my favorite things about blogging is that life’s ups and downs (literally!) make good copy. I also love the community. It’s good to have you back.

Jenn Jilks said...

Ah, there is a theme: dying parents.

I love the photo of the hammock. I am in the midst of painting the cottage and need motivation, too!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I'm happy to read this review, as I've been considering picking up this book! Glad to know you liked it.

I had to laugh at the hammock. I once slipped in the back at one of my husband's concert and pulled up a rather antique looking chair and sat down. You guessed, the chair collapsed with a deafening crash and there was the singer's wife sprawled out in the floor. Sigh.

lakeviewer said...

Enjoyed your review of Russo's book.

Loved your addition at the end, sending folks to Tessa's blog.

Sarah Laurence said...

Jenn, let’s hope your motivation comes in a gentler incarnation. Good luck with your cottage work.

Pamela, my second thought after “ouch” was at least no one witnessed it. Then I showed my son and laughed. Your chair escapade must have been embarrassing. Good for you to see the humor in it. Our Goldilocks moments. Ha!

Lakeviewer, I hope the support helps poor Tessa.

Bee said...

When I saw the picture of the hammock, every other thought flew out of my mind! As I write, the wind is howling and rain is beating against the window. Yes, September is here . . .

I've enjoyed all of Russo's work, and I'm happy to know he has something new to read. I didn't manage to read (or write) much this summer; hopefully rainy days will help me catch up!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, how rotten. September can be so nice. You are right that the cold, wet days are good for reading. Russo’s novel just came out in mid August here, but I’m not sure if it’s out in the UK yet. My catch up time will come when the kids start school next week .

Kathy Holmes said...

I'll have to add this to my list when I'm looking for something just a bit different - love the title. :)

I also thought the blogs to watch piece was a clever idea!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Ouch, yourself! I hope you're okay. That'd be enough to spook me away from hammocks for a while.

I love the book cover on this one--great review!

Sarah Laurence said...

Kathy, the title is fun. I like how my blog watch ties my community together. I miss important posts since I blog weekly, and I’m sure others miss them too.

Alyssa, thanks! I’m not spooked at all – I want a new hammock for next Mother’s Day (hint to my family) but this time I’ll chuck it when the first rope snaps. I liked the cover art too.

Barrie said...

I haven't read anything by Richard Russo. Sounds as though I'd better correct this! Also, I think my teens would still be laughing if a hammock collapsed under me! Thanks for the great review! Oh, BTW, I linked DIRECTLY to your review. Aren't I getting html smart!!

Keri Mikulski said...

Thanks for the congrats!! That was so sweet of you, Sarah to think of me!!

This sounds like a great book.. :) Love the cover.

Ellen Booraem said...

I'm ashamed to say it, since I live here in Maine, but I haven't read any Russo, either. I even own one, somewhere in this house. Gotta get on it, I guess.

Love the hammock photo. Sorry about the bump on the grass, though.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Oh dear, I hope that your tumble from the hammock didn't hurt too much!

Rose said...

I've never read anything by Russo, but will add him to my list. I've found I often don't agree with the critics:) Too funny about the hammock--hope you got a lot of work done after this!

Stacy Nyikos said...

Great review, although I'm not sure I'll be reading it. I tried a light beach read a while back and ending up leaving at the beach. It just didn't grab me, even though it was a National Bestseller. I hope it grabs someone else who finds it. I hate leaving books but this one felt like dry stuffing, not even a dessert book. Not a hint of chocolate.

I'm beginning to wonder what the criteria are to carry the title, National Bestseller. But that may be the sleeplessness talking.

Mama Shujaa said...

Whoops! Hope you are ok? :-) Was it a loud thud or more like the bang of a firecracker. They say be careful what you wish for; we say be careful what you utter! In Kiswahili we say:

Ukupigao ndio ukufunzao [what beats you is what teaches you]

A Cuban In London said...

What an enticing book this one seems to me! Death and the old generational conundrum. I am totally convinced that most of the time death acts as a catalyst, for better or worse, mind. And I have the scars to prove it. Many thanks for another beautiful review. I missed them whilst I was away.

Greetings from London.

Kelly H-Y said...

Oh my goodness ... the picture of your hammock, with the book perched on top of the broken strings, made me laugh. You poor thing ... hope nothing was injured in the fall!

kaye said...

I'm glad you could get up and laugh after your fall. Nice review and thanks for stopping by.

troutbirder said...

Hmmm. "Small town going nowhere," you say. No thanks. Living it is enough.

Friko said...

The only Russo I've read (because a family member living in Maine sent it to me) is Nobody's Fool, which I like enormously. I shall have a go at the one you recommend here. Thanks
I've come over from A Cuban in London (I'm a German in the UK) and I'm very glad I did so.
I'll be back for more reviews and pictures. Nothing like having info straight from the horse's mouth.

Jan said...

I shall look out for this.
You make it mouth-wateringly interesting!

ewix said...

This sounds like a major 'must-read'.
Intelligent, literate and with themes that are spot on.
As with your review of American Wife, you are balanced and thoughtful.
Yes, grim, grim that summer is so fleeting.

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

So glad you didn't break your tail bone with that fall!!!!
Gorgeous review, Sarah!

Boomer Baby Bliss

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting another Book Review Club. I think you would enjoy Russo’s sense of humor. Teen sons are good for laughter. Very impressive about the direct link - you go girl!

Keri, so exciting about your good news. Russo’s cover really caught my attention – fun!

Ellen, you have to read Russo, especially if you live in Maine and enjoy good writing. Almost worth the bump for the image.

JAPRA, it wasn’t too painful thanks to the thick grass. Very funny in retrospect if not at the moment.

Rose, I think you would like Russo. It’s been a very productive week after the hammock collapse. Might not have happened otherwise since the weather has been gorgeous.

Stacy, Russo’s latest is already on the NYT bestseller list but he also won a Pullitzer for an earlier book, Empire Falls. He writes really well – it’s not junky. This one is just more humorous than some of his more serious novels. Good to have you back at blogging but get some sleep!

Mama Shujaa, it wasn’t far to fall and onto soft grass luckily. I LOVE that Swahili saying – totally fits the image.

ACIL, I’m sorry to hear you have such scars. You are right about tragic events being catalysts. Death makes one think more about life and what one wants to accomplish. Great to have you back!

Kelly, the laughter has way outlasted the pain.

Kaye, nice to reconnect through the Book Review Club.

Troutbirder, not every book is for everyone. Some hit too close to home. I still think you'd enjoy Russo's humor - it's not unlike your own.

Friko, welcome to my blog! I actually tried reading Nobody’s Fool at the beach earlier this summer, but it seemed like more of a winter’s book. I’m looking forward to finishing it once the snow starts falling. So nice to connect with you through ACIL. I enjoyed your blog too.

Jan, I’m not sure if this book is out in the UK yet –sometimes there is a few months lag. It just came out in August in the US.

Ewix, I think you’d love this novel and thanks for the praise. I’ve been trying to make the most of these last glorious days of summer with the kids. Yesterday it was the beach and today a walk and a bike ride.

Boomer, I didn’t even think how bad it could have been. Lucky me for soft grass. Thanks!

Dawn Maria said...

I enjoyed this thoughtful and detailed review Sarah. I'm deeply committed to Phillipa's Gregory's latest- THE WHITE QUEEN. Can't put it down, which is such great fun, especially over a long weekend when I can read at length.

Sarah Laurence said...

Dawn Maria, a good long book and a long weekend - that sounds like a fine mix. Thanks for the recommendation.

Delwyn said...

Thanks you Sarah for another erudite review...

Happy days

☆sapphire said...

"The Old Cape Magic" sounds very interesting! I've placed an order at Amazon. Thank you for this nice review. As far as I remember, his "Nobody's Fool" has been translated into Japanese. But as for his award winning "Empire Falls", strangely no translation, perhaps.

PS
Thank you for telling me about lobstermen. I've read your
2007's posts. I've learned much from them. A great deal of time and care you had devoted for the publication of "S.A.D." impressed me a lot. I understand it very well. Looking forward very much to your new book!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Delwyn, thanks!

Sapphire, how strange that Empire Falls isn’t translated since it won the Pulitzer in 2002. S.A.D. required a lot of research, but it was fun, especially going out lobstering. My literary agent is looking for a publisher for S.A.D. now. Everything got slowed down due to the economic woes. Thank you for the encouragement!

Shauna said...

Thank you again for another great review! Ouch to the broken hammock.

Fifi Flowers said...

Love the thought of laying in a hammock... looking at your photo!

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Shauna.

Fifi, I miss my hammock.

Donna said...

That incident with the hammock would have made me laugh too! You have a good sense of humor to have taken a picture of it.
I've been reading about this book and I appreciate your review of it. I think I'll put it on my list.

Sarah Laurence said...

Donna, you'll enjoy Russo's humor.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Nice review. I also wanted to add that I loved the cover of this book--the chairs on the beach and the raised colorful letters of the title. One of my favorite covers.

I enjoyed catching up on your posts.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, this book matches its fun cover. My husband really enjoyed it too.