Review: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Title: That Old Cape Magic
Author: Richard Russo
Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: August 4, 2009
Publisher: Knopf
Source: Personal Copy

Bookended by two weddings, Richard Russo's newest novel tells the story of aging screenwriter-turned-college-professor Jack Griffin. These two weddings force Griffin to confront his demons (the ashes of his father he's been harboring in the trunk of his car for the past year being one), and to question why his own marriage is in shambles. Through flashbacks, Russo reveals the characters who have shaped Griffin's current outlook on life, including his snobbish academic parents and their failed marriage. The introspective journey brings about many questions regarding the relationships that are formed throughout life. That Old Cape Magic reveals the lasting effects of one's parents, children, and spouses and whether success occurs because of or in spite of their influence.

Russo's 8th novel succeeded in providing a structure that presented the "flashback" device in a different way than a lot of authors' attempts. I also found the jumps from present, to past, and back flowed quite well as did the revelation of information. Russo did a good job of pacing the introduction of characters and not going into lengthy asides to give an entire background. A good example is Bart, a character that is briefly mentioned in the first chapter. Bart's characteristics, like his choice to abstain from talking, are revealed at later intervals in the story instead of abruptly straying from the narrative at hand. Based on Griffin's assessment of himself as being focused on continuity and "the characters' gestures and dialogue, the smaller moment-to-moment truths of story and daily life, the tiny burrs under the narrative saddle" the character comes across as a semi-autobiographical portrait.

In the end, I think the mediocrity of this novel comes not from the writing style, but more from the things left unfinished. Creating a sense of place is imperative to effectively telling a story, and I feel that Russo fell short of developing a rich supporting character out of his Cape Cod setting. Don't get me wrong; I can tell that a lot of research was put into the geography, but I didn't feel that Russo's effort was fully realized the way it was written. Take out the proper place names, and it could have been anywhere else, which doesn't bode well for a novel that aims to convey "the Cape's allure." The secondary characters, except for Griffin's daughter, Laura, did not feel as developed as in previous Russo novels, and the attempts at humor (carrying around an urn of ashes) fell flat. However, despite these negatives, I still enjoyed this quick and straightforward novel and will be looking forward to his future works. I would recommend this book if you are interested in a character study of a marriage, or if you are a fan of his older works, such as Empire Falls.


  1. Empire Falls is the only book of his I've read, and I had some maaaaajor problems with it. I've always shied away from Russo since then, but I suppose I should give him at least one more shot. I've always considered Straight Man. Read that on?

  2. The book may not have been perfect, but you have definitely written a fabulous review!

  3. I did like this one a lot. It reminds me that I have several other unread Russo books on my shelves. thanks for the honest review.

  4. I have this one on my shelf. I did enjoy Empire Falls but have heard mixed reviews of this one. thanks for the review.

  5. I've never read a Russo book yet, but many have recommended him. I'm sorry that this isn't very excellent but I'm glad that the flashbacks are done well. I find them a maker or breaker of good plots.

  6. Trisha - Thanks. Sometimes, I think it's easier to write a review for a book I didn't like than one I did.

    Diane - Thanks for the compliment. That's what I always strive for even if I don't care for a book.

    Booksnyc - I do think this one is worth a read. There are many good aspects to the novel, I guess I was just expecting a little more.

    Aths - I've only read one other book by Russo, but I think this one would be a good introduction to his writing. The story flows pretty well, and it's not terribly long.

  7. I agree that this isn't Russo's best. Empire Falls is one of my all-time favorite reads, so I felt a tad disappointed in this one. FYI for Andi above: Straight Man is a more focused (plot-wise), anti-hero driven comedy, and I enjoyed it for what it was as well.
    Jenna, I'm so enjoying your blog that I'm going to follow today.
    Hope you'll drop by to see if you'd like to follow back - I think we've got similar tastes but disparate reading lists, so we might learn a lot from each others' posts!


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