Lacking magic

Richard Russo's latest slice of life is too thin
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 29, 2009

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There's a lot to be said for literary realism, which tackles head-on the quotidian realities that postmodernism and surrealism often cloak in gimmicks or avoid altogether. Maine author (and Portland Phoenix reader fave) Richard Russo is nothing if not a realist; his previous novels (including Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls) portray believable characters navigating familiar, relatable scenarios.

But even this device should serve to illuminate new truths, not merely to rehash dreary reality. Of course, an author could decide to do just that — to underscore some perceived pointlessness, perhaps — but that does not seem to be the aim of Russo's latest offering, That Old Cape Magic (Knopf), which purports, at its conclusion, to celebrate life and love. Alas, the execution misses its mark, and Russo presents a cast of largely unlikeable characters living largely unlikeable lives. Perhaps it was an ironic choice to put the word "magic" in the title, because there is little enchantment in the world Russo has created.

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Instead, we meet Jack Griffin, his wife Joy, their parents, and their daughter, Laura, all of whom grapple with various degrees of standard-issue marital strife, most of which is played out at two different weddings, one on Cape Cod, and one on the coast of Maine, and in a series of flashbacks. There's clearly supposed to be symbolism in these settings — messy situations arise even in the most idyllic of places — but it falls flat.

The biggest reason? None of the characters is particularly personable. Russo provides psychological sketches for an interesting cast of characters, but leaves them hanging rather two-dimensionally. There's a bit too much telling, and not enough showing, and what showing there is only serves to distance the reader from the characters.

The descriptions of Griffin's parents, for example, lack nuance. This mom and dad are downright detached, almost mean, and it seems obvious that their method of childrearing would leave emotional scars on Griffin, their only son. As Griffin, throughout the book, comes to realize how large a role his parents have played in his own marriage and emotional development, it's a narrative that seems contrived — how could he not have seen this earlier? Perhaps because his own tendency to overanalyze, or to detach, himself, got in the way. But it's hard to care about epiphanies that come at the emotional hands of men and women who intellectualize everything. (This condemnation of elitist academics is one theme of Russo's book — but it's not explored deeply enough.)

Even glimmers of humor (like when the main character points out, astutely, that New England weddings aren't supposed to — but sometimes do — conjure comparisons to the war in Iraq) and slices of tough reality (as with Griffin's contemplation that his daughter's young marriage might someday be marred by the fact that "trust and intimacy do not — indeed cannot — exist apart from consequence and obligation") aren't enough to save the plodding, seemingly mud-stuck narrative.

Russo's goal might have been to show that not only are all happy families alike, but all unhappy ones are too. Everyone's got family baggage, everyone's got dreams that can't be saved by seaside sojourns. Yes, it's true. But in this tome, Russo loses the magic that exists, even in tragedy. The only spell cast here is one of boredom.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

RICHARD RUSSO reads from That Old Cape Magic | August 5 @ 7 pm | First Parish UU Church, 425 Congress St, Portland | 207.871.1710 | Knopf | 261 pages | $25.95

Related: A conversation between Richard Russo and Andre Dubus III, Richard Russo pairs with his artist daughter, Class acts, More more >
  Topics: Books , Media, Pulitzer Prize Committee, Book Reviews,  More more >
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