If you want to write a novel, it pays to start out at one of life’s major crossroads and move forward and back from there. This is amply proved in Richard Russo’s new novel, “That Old Cape Magic” (Knopf, $25.) Set during the lead-up to a wedding, and using flashbacks to reveal the characters more fully, Russo’s sensitive portrayal of the connections and misconnections that occur in marriage can be classed with the best work of John Updike. But that’s not all Russo’s new book offers. Replete with Russo’s characteristic pensiveness, and demonstrating the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s penchant for humor that is by turns wry and wickedly funny, the new novel also is a study of how profoundly our parents influence our lives, whether we like it or not.
During a recent interview in Camden, Russo revealed that both he and his main character were at the same intersection in their lives when he began writing the book. Both were facing the loss of a parent at the same time they were preparing to see their daughters married. “The combination of parents living longer and children getting married later is creating a confluence of stresses on my generation,” Russo said. “This was a time when my mother was very ill and we were planning two weddings, one for our daughter Kate in London and another for our daughter Emily in Camden. Those were the forces at work in the Russo household at the time of my writing of this book.”
Russo, who has not only taught creative writing at Colby College but written successful screenplays, draws on more of his own life experience here, too. In “That Old Cape Magic,” Russo’s main character Griffin is a screenwriter-turned academic. Both Russo and Griffin also are mulling the influence of their parents on their lives. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between Griffin and his manipulative mom, while she is alive, and after her death, when he cannot stop hearing her voice. Dry and wry, witty and bitchy, her voice provides insistent interruptions in Griffin’s life. An unreliable narrator of past events, she tries to revise Griffins’ recollections of his own life and of his parents’ marriage. “His mom on her death bed essentially rewriting her own marriage by telling a story testifies to our own need to tell our story to keep ourselves straight,” Russo said. “She is still manipulating him to the end, with her version.” And she will not leave him alone until Griffin not only hears her but listens to his own heart.
While Russo said he is not haunted by his late parents to the extent that Griffin is, he admitted, “There are certain times of the day when the phone rings and I think, ‘That must be Mom.’ And my father, who has been gone much longer, still ‘visits’ from time to time to remind me that I’m still as full of [it] as ever,” he added with a broad smile.
Some of the book’s most poignant moments occur on Cape Cod, where Griffin’s family summered throughout his boyhood. As he revisits those scenes, Griffin is drawn to remember his parents’ edgy marriage and his own loneliness as the only child of two self-absorbed adults. “Griffin experiences his more vivid recollections as he stumbles upon these scenes,” Russo said. “It’s so treacherous, these remains of the places he once knew.”
The most treacherous moment in the book occurs in a flashback when Griffin observes his young wife sobbing inconsolably in the shower. “Often with a complex and loving relationship, a virtuous impulse masks something that is not so virtuous,” Russo explained. “In some way, he didn’t have a right to be there. Without meaning to, he’s violated her privacy in an absolutely shattered moment. If he would think about it, he would know there is someone else in her life in some significant way. His generosity and his decency,” shown in his deciding to respect her privacy, “is something to be admired, but he’s also a coward in that moment,” Russo said.
In contrast with this tentativeness, a Korean-American character named Sunny Kim cannot conceal his unguarded, unrequited love for Griffin’s daughter, Laura. “Sunny falls in love not only with Laura but with her family and the whole American way of life,” Russo said. This echoes Griffin’s own boyhood fascination with a family he meets on the Cape, whose life he idealizes and writes about in a haunting piece of fiction.
In the end, “That Old Cape Magic” is a recipe for laying ghosts to rest. It also is a tale about love requited and unrequited. Finally, it is a big-hearted book about real, complex relationships that are an utterly fascinating mix of the two.
Upcoming Russo events: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, Owl & Turtle Bookshop, 32 Washington St., Camden; 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5, Left Bank Books, 21 E. Main St., Searsport; 7 p.m., The Portland Public Library, offsite at First Parish UU Church, 425 Congress St., Portland. Event is free and open to the public.