Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Russo, has done it again with another insightful and moving generational story. Russo has created a cast of maddeningly wonderful characters that are both compelling and repelling. We follow the long marriage of Jack and Joy Griffin from its beginning all the way to its apparent unraveling upon the eve of their daughter’s marriage. But That Old Cape Magic is more than the story of Jack and Joy’s marriage. It is the story of every generation’s determination to do it better than their parents. What neither Jack (only called Griffin throughout the novel) nor Joy fully understand, even after all those years, is how much of their parents, with all their flaws, they have both brought into their marriage.
That Old Cape Magic and Griffin’s memories of past vacations of his youth are what he holds to be the best years of his parents’ most unhappy union. Griffin’s attachment to his mother is amplified by her voice which he hears before and after almost every important decision he’s ever made. It doesn’t matter that once out of college he never returned home, her voice comes through loud and clear. Griffin can never get far enough away. Even death cannot silence her.
Griffin’s wife, on the other hand, believes her parents to be far less intrusive, in spite of the fact that they are not happy with Griffin’s career as screenwriter, believing his career is the cause of a footloose and unstable marriage. Given their very traditional upper class background, their disapproval is understandable. .
When Griffin is offered a job as a college professor at a fairly prestigious institution, he and Joy move to the East Coast. It is exactly the position Griffin’s parents (both college profs at a small Midwest school) had lusted after all their teaching lives. Stability has apparently arrived for Griffin and Joy. They buy their first home. It is the home Joy has always wanted, the perfect place to raise their young daughter, the perfect place for the two of them to grow into their golden years. Or so she thinks.
Once the reader has all the facts and can see what Russo’s hapless characters do not yet understand about themselves, well, that is when the fun begins. The meticulously planned wedding day is overshadowed by a riotous and over the top rehearsal dinner. The pathos of both parents arriving for the dinner as newly separated, with “dates” in tow, is almost too much to bear. The reader is always two steps ahead of Joy and Griffin who can’t they see what fools they are being. But the evening has just begun and the ensuing mayhem and slapstick madness suggests that by the time the wedding occurs, we may all be in for a few surprises.
This is a wonderfully entertaining and satisfying read.