That Old Cape Magic

book by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

What a disappointment. That Old Cape Magic is not nearly as well crafted as Russo’s Straight Man, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool. It also lacks their heart and complexity, preferring to shorthand minor and tangential characters as uninteresting types (left wing professor, evangelical, Republican), rather than finding the telling detail. The humor, too, is off and there is way too much pop psychology about the parents’ intrusion and effect on the marriage at the center of the narrative.

The prose is workmanlike and does little to evoke a sense of place in either the Midwest, Cape Cod, or Maine. There is no lyricism here and, again, the finely observed details of, say, Nobody’s Fool are missing. The sense of place is fine, but that’s all it is. Fine. The worst of it comes with inane observations, “Fynch was a tall man, and his suit was well tailored and expensive looking. He seemed comfortable in it, as men who wear suits every day often are.” (189) Sigh. This is more of a problem if you’re familiar with the author because he’s capable of so much more.

There is a set piece late in the novel, built around an improbable event with an old man, a wheelchair and a tree. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s a piece of intended slapstick that feels like it is stuck in for comic effect. There is not the inevitable tension-building that the device of Occam’s Razor provides in Straight Man. There’s just an unfortunate accident coupled with overreactions and misunderstandings. Perhaps if Russo had honed in more on the parallels with the protagonist’s short story and his own parents or the weddings that bookend the narrative with the protagonist’s marriage, there would have been something more compelling here, but overall the narrative came across as unfocused and ineffective. In the last pages, Griffin, the main character observes, “Late middle age was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” The same cannot be said of this novel: the reader will not fail to see any of it coming because That Old Cape Magic has none of its own.


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