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Review of That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo

That Old Cape Magic

This novel is a meditation on how we see the world – in particular, how a man sees the world after losing his father and then his mother, two intellectually sharp English professors.

It’s not until I finished reading That Old Cape Magic that I realise how sharp and painful this novel is. As I started reading it, it feels intellectually satisfying within a domestic setting, as an English professor travels across the country to attend a wedding, reflecting on his life as he does so.

All very pleasant. He has a nice wife, a good job, and memories of his parents being so happy to arrive at the Cape each summer.

But beneath that is a deeper tension. In the boot of his car are his ashes of his father. It turns out he has been driving around with them for a year now, unable to let them go.

And he left home a day ahead of his wife. Which at first seems like no big deal, but becomes more so as the events of the novel unfold.

He reflects on the unhappiness of his parents, both together and then apart, and contrasts that with the happy marriage and family life he has enjoyed. And yet the parents seep in. Their outlook on life has coloured his own view of the world more than he realises. This causes him to question his own life choices, his comfortable life, his in-laws and the compromises he has made which he kind of blames on his wife.

He was a screenwriter, but became a professor in the mid-West because she had a dream of a house and family, and connection with her wider family that he doesn’t fit into. He can’t buy into their values, including golf and property, because of the kind of parents he grew up with.

His parents sound pretty vile, focused on themselves and their dramas, with their son being a satellite to that. But even in death they are part of him, and they create more and more tension between the life he is now living and their views on that life.

By the time he returns to the Cape for the wedding of his daughter the following year his life has completely changed. And now he has two cans of ashes in his boot.

This novel is very different from Nobody’s Fool, and Everybody’s Fool – in that it’s about middle class, intellectual, comfortable lives, where the problems are dissatisfaction and the conflict between security and creativity. Unlike Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool, no one’s digging out muck or uplifting coffins in the middle of the night in this book.

But it cuts deceptively deep, beneath the tidy surface.