Richard Russo,
That Old Cape Magic
(Knopf, 2009)

That Old Cape Magic felt like Richard Russo lite. Put another way, it disappointed because of one major flaw: it's too brief.

Russo's best books -- in particular Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs -- held my and other readers' attention over the course of 500 pages or more. In that space, Russo's characters shifted from the past to the present, sometimes -- like in Bridge of Sighs -- giving us a peek inside what they're up to at 10 years old, 20 years old and middle age.

In That Old Cape Magic, Russo lays the groundwork for a similar decades-long story to be told, but then, unfortunately, just never gets there. Glimpses into the past, for example, are truncated into bite-sized recaps, as if That Old Cape Magic was whittled down by a heavy-handed editor.

And that may have been the case. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 for Empire Falls, the biggest criticism of his follow-up novel, Bridge of Sighs, was that Russo may have been granted too much free will in what made it into the final cut. (Hence why its page count turned into a pretty huge 650-plus).

Or, it may have been the fact that Russo began That Old Cape Magic with the intention of making a short story out of it. As he got down to actually writing the thing, however, it quickly developed into a full text.

Or, as he stated in previous interviews, Russo has a knack and an eye for developing stories and characters that can be adapted to film. A 272-page story, of course, is a hell of a lot easier to digest into a future screenplay than one of double that length.

Whatever the case, the end result wasn't nearly as memorable as other stories I've read of his.

That Old Cape Magic is the story of Jack Griffin, a former Hollywood screenwriter who over the course of two successive summers attends two weddings -- one in fact belonging to his only daughter, Laura -- while at the same time juggling the deaths of his parents (and the decision of where to scatter their ashes) and a separation from his wife.

Russo loyalists will enjoy this book. His usual devices -- notably a middle-aged male struggling to cope with relationship, family and general life problems; snappy dialogue and domineering women -- are used once again. And successfully. Yet I do suggest newbies to Russo's work save this one for a later date. Instead, they should begin their journey with another book in the author's impressive catalogue.

review by
Eric Hughes

31 October 2009

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