We all love flicking through a book that can make a true impact on our lives, and That Old Cape Magic is one such book that manages to pull at the heartstrings so much that it can feel eerily relatable at times.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo has always been known for crafting emotional stories that reach into our deeper feelings and emotions, but he takes it to a whole new level in That Old Cape Magic with the book largely focusing on familial relationships.
However, since he is so aware of how serious and impactful the nature of the story can seem, Russo still ensures to include just enough comedy and quirkiness to make this a truly worthwhile read, especially since the book is so short (If you liked this story, also check out Inherent Vice).
Here is a full review of That Old Cape Magic and our initial impressions after finishing the book to help you decide whether you think it might be worth adding to your reading list.
Overview Of The Novel
The story follows Jack Griffin, a 58-year-old man who currently works as an English professor in New England.
When we first see our disgruntled and irritable protagonist, he is traveling to a friend’s wedding with his beautiful wife Joy and his daughter Laura (If you like books with themes of travel, check out Travels With Herodotus).
All seems well on the surface, but the truth is Jack’s life has been hounded by his parents for as long as he can remember.
Both of Jack’s parents, who are also English teachers, are very disapproving of his relationship with Joy, especially after they find out that she has never done graduate work in her life.
The relationship between the two parents was characterized by arguments, fights, and indecent affairs, all of which usually came back on a young Jack who would usually ignore the family issues, but now, it’s starting to become all he can think about.
The wedding Jack travels to is located on Cape Cod, the same place his parents visited every summer while he was growing up.
The main goal in his life is to have a family relationship that is filled with love and happiness, unlike the one that his parents experienced, but he soon comes to realize that maybe he isn’t as close to his own family as he initially thought.
Later in the book, Jack is once again traveling to a second wedding, and this time, it’s for his daughter Laura.
However, with both of Jack’s parents now dead, he ponders whether he really has fallen into the same pattern as them and if he is truly living the life he wanted.
About The Author
Richard Russo is a very well-established and respected author who currently has 12 novels to his name, with the first being Mohawk released in 1986.
It wasn’t really until the explosive praise of Empire Falls that Russo finally became a well-established name in the world of literature though, with the book winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002.
He is known for telling very emotional and at times very dark stories while still incorporating a lot of wry humor and wit which has led many people to view him as an author who excels at writing dark comedy.
Many of his books have actually been adapted to the big screen, including Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, but That Old Cape Magic has not retrieved this treatment just yet, despite how successful it was for Russo commercially and critically.
Review Of That Old Cape Magic
Family relations can be extremely difficult to understand. While we know that the people within our family usually don’t mean any harm, it can still be easy for people to become irritated, annoyed, or hostile to their loved ones.
At the same time, no matter how much we may dislike someone in the family, there can still be an element of respect or sympathy for them, and this is the main topic That Old Cape Magic manages to portray so beautifully.
Jack’s parents are never written in a way to make them seem outright detestable or evil.
Instead, Russo makes them feel like real people with underlying worries, fears, and anxieties which all lead them to act the way they do throughout the flashbacks in the story.
We also see this from Jack’s point of view, being very annoyed and exhausted with his parent’s attitude to begin with, but then learning to acknowledge their troubled lives in a much more sympathetic way by the second half of the novel.
Russo also takes a fascinating look at the uneasy tension that can sometimes form between parents and their child’s partner and the range of emotions and irritations that can come with this constant judging of a person’s relationship.
This exploration of family relations is really what shines here in That Old Cape Magic, but in classic Russo style, the book also comes with plenty of jokes and witty dialogue to break up the more introspective moments.
It should be said though that these moments are very few and far between, and it can often feel like Russo is struggling to add some lightheartedness to the story, but its inclusion is still very much appreciated.
Russo also has an incredible knack for describing places in excruciating detail, whether it’s the bright and glamorous LA, the homely and traditional New England, or even the lonely but vibrant Cape Cod, there is so much to admire about the effortless way he portrays locations.
All in all, That Old Cape Magic can fall short of the classic Russo dark humor that people are used to, but the emotions and expertly crafted story are still very much here and a true joy to read through.
Themes In That Old Cape Magic
There are a few key messages and themes that Richard Russo is trying to tell with his protagonist Jack and the flashbacks that pop up across the story. Here are some of the main themes that readers should look out for.
While you can easily stop seeing a friend or a work buddy if you fall out with them or have a disagreement, this is much harder to do with family members, something Jack knows all too well as he experiences every emotion possible when reflecting back on his family.
Despite how much grief his parents had given him, whether it was for his job, his wife, or simply just his lifestyle, underneath it all he still loves his parents and acknowledges everything they’ve done to help put him in the position he is in today.
These types of relationships are never going to be straightforward, and the rather messy and unorthodox way Russo portrays them is a clear visual representation of what many of us have experienced when trying to interact with our own families at certain points in our lives.
At the beginning of the book, Russo paints a scene that suggests that the married life Jack is living couldn’t be any more ideal, but this is a very clever way of essentially saying to the reader never to read a book by its cover.
As we progress through the story, we soon realize Jack’s marriage has been very troubled, despite the fact that he promised not to let it become tense or toxic as his parents did.
Jack will frequently think back to the early days of his relationship with Joy in LA where the two of them would spend what little money they had just to be around each other, which at the time, was all he wished for in life.
Now, that magic that once filled the air whenever the two were together seems to have disappeared almost completely, as he recalls all the times the two would argue or disagree, such as when Joy disapproved of Jack’s decision to go on a boy’s night out after the wedding.
It can be incredibly difficult to retain that special intimate spark with a romantic partner, and by obsessing over having the best marriage possible, Jack loses sight of what he actually loves his wife for and how he can work to improve the marriage.
Intangible Emotions With Places
L.A, New England, and Cape Cod all hold some sort of sentimental meaning and connection to Jack, which is why he either visits them or at least thinks about them constantly throughout the story.
Cape Cod specifically is the area he visits most in the book, and despite the small and quaint resort not physically changing that much over the years, it is Jack’s own intangible emotions that have forced him to view his childhood summer retreat in multiple different ways.
By focusing on one area so intently throughout the book, Russo perfectly encapsulates why certain locations can mean so much to us and how our connection to them can even alter the way we view the family and friends around us.
If you don’t mind the comedy being more of an afterthought and simply want a beautifully written story that is incredibly relatable and full of intrigue and emotion, That Old Cape Magic is still an excellent read and definitely one of Richard Russo’s very best books to date.
Do keep in mind though that the family dynamic really takes the central stage for most of the book, so deciding whether to pick this book up should really depend on how curious you are to explore all the different feelings and emotions that are involved in the family dynamic.