They F**k You Up, Your Mom and Dad
That Old Cape MagicRichard Russo
(Knopf · $25.95)
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo is a New Englander, a pertinent fact because place is a character in all of his books. The Northeast, be it the Upstate New York of Bridge of Sighs or small-town Maine of Empire Falls, is Russo's muse. It's both the backdrop and crucible for his work, characterized by class, clapboard and intergenerational conflict. His newest, That Old Cape Magic, doesn't stray from the successful formula.
That Old Cape Magic focuses on middle-aged screenwriter-turned-professor Jack Griffin and his relationships with his wife and daughter. But it's his parents, appearing mostly through memory, who move the story's action. As East Coast intellectuals doomed (in their estimation) to suffer teaching college in the "Mid-fucking-west," Griffin's parents' snobbery and snarkiness leave him, as an adult, eager to be whatever and wherever they're not.
As the strongest aspect of the novel, Russo's depiction of William and Mary Griffin makes it easy to understand their son's revulsion. English professors who attended Ivy League schools, they privilege a narrow range of intellectual pursuits. The first thing they ask about Joy, Jack’s new wife, is, "Where did she do her graduate work?" That Joy went to work after getting a bachelor's degree causes Jack's mother to wonder, "But what sort of person doesn't do graduate work?"
While his parents have exacting standards for everyone they meet, they are unable to completely realize their goals themselves. The pair are kept out of their vaunted East Coast schools by their own intransigence, insisting they be given positions at the same school together. Disappointment calcifies into bitterness, shutting out their son and, increasingly, each other.
For these academics, the summer is a respite, and during Jack’s childhood, Cape Cod becomes their haven and home for several weeks every year. When the middle-aged Jack returns to the Cape decades later for a wedding (an urn with his father's ashes in the trunk of his car), he's forced to acknowledge his distant parents' still very real presence in his life. All he's ever wanted is to be different than them. His life choices, then, aren't so much decisions as they are reactions to what his parents did and who they were.
Though Russo is infatuated with a particular region, the book deals with a universal lesson: Trying to be a wholly independent person, unshaped by one's parents, is ultimately a doomed effort. That's not a groundbreaking realization, but Russo isn't concerned with the psychological or stylistic fads of the moment. He is a clean writer who relishes the creation of characters who are flawed and smart enough to know it. Though That Old Cape Magic is a lighter entry than his previous books—both in terms of length and scope (no shifting perspective or cast of dozens)—it is, like all of his work, honest. Jack Griffin isn't noble, nor is he the sort of anti-hero who's all the rage in books, TV and movies. He's tired and confused and does things we might hate, but nothing we can condemn. We can't; he's too much like us.