THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC

On a recent vacation with my wife, I came across a sign in a flower shop that said “Put on your Big Boy pants and get over it.”

I was reminded of that sage philosophy while reading That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo.  In this book, we meet Jack Griffin, a former L. A. screenwriter who is now teaching screenwriting back East.  He is married to Joy and they have a daughter named Laura.  The whole family is traveling to the Cape to attend the wedding of Laura’s friend and the trip has set in motion for the reader an explanation of all that is wrong in Jack’s life.

He is feeling bad about his relationship with his parents (one of whom is dead and in an urn in the trunk of his car), his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his job situation (including his former writing partner and his agent left back in L.A.). 

Basically this is a book about Jack whining.  The bad news is the reader may be looking for the big boy pants every once in a while.  The good news is that it is written by the wry observer of male life, Richard Russo.  If this were a review, I would say that the book bogs down a little at the end of the first section but all is redeemed in the second so it gets a B+.

Thematically, it is a gold mine for a book discussion.  It has a plethora of themes.  The fact that Jack cannot dump his father’s ashes in the waters off the Cape is in opposition to the fact that his parents visited the Cape each year ritualistically “as if happiness were a place.”  The fact that Jack cannot relate to Joy because of how his parents behaved is echoed by the fact that he begins to act like one parent while being haunted by the other.  Jack may be a great parent but he will never know it due to the trauma he carries from the behavior of his own.

My favorite line in the book echoes a big theme:  “Late middle age, he was coming to understand, was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.”

So go forth and have a book discussion.  Your parents would be proud (I can only hope).

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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