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Sunday, September 13, 2009

That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo is a novelist with a immense knowledge of people. His fictional characters come equipped with the resentments, entanglements, unwanted obligations and tortured memories of real human beings. This gift for creating round characters is how Russo is able to create such memorable fiction out of the lives of ordinary men and women. He gets at the universal nature of unhappiness and portrays with stunning insight and sympathy.

Russo's newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, utilizes this knowledge of human folly further than any of his other works. There is also a greater sense of bitterness and sorrow than ever before. At times That Old Cape Magic feels like its holding up a mirror to all the ugliness in the reader's soul. Everyone can recognize themselves in Russo's Jack Griffin, a married man who often knows he is about to say the wrong thing and says it anyway, sometimes intending to inflict the damage he causes.

The novel breaks neatly into two sections, each surrounding a wedding. In between the two Jack and his wife of thirty years separate, and both show up to their daughter's wedding with dates. Russo somberly traces the dissolution of their marriage, as they fail to deal with the emotional problems facing them and instead lash out at each other.

As always, family, especially parents, play a huge role in the tension. Jack hates his parents, snobbish English professors consigned to mediocrity in the "Mid-fucking-west" with their only escape a yearly vacation to Cape Cod, even though he is more like them than he cares to admit. The way Jack most resembles his parents is in his petty dislike of his wife's family and their Protestant values.

Russo's command of the story is as impressive as always, and the number of characters and memorable set pieces he manages to include is rather amazing considering the books brevity and breeziness. Despite being at times rather uncomfortable to read, a trainwreck on paper, if you will, That Old Cape Magic is, in its own way, an enjoyable read.

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