Call it Two Weddings, a Bunch of Funerals and a Midlife Crisis.
There's a cinematic quality to Richard Russo's new novel, That Old Cape Magic, and not just because its protagonist, Jack Griffin, has worked as a screenwriter and hopes to again.
Russo's last couple of novels, Bridge of Sighs and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, have been big family sagas with complex plots, long timelines, large casts of characters and undercurrents of tragedy.
That Old Cape Magic harks back in several ways to Russo's 1997 novel, Straight Man. Funny and sharply focused, Straight Man was one of the best satires on academia I've ever read. The new book casts its net wider, but it gets plenty of hooks into ivory tower types. Straight Man was also a story about one man's midlife crisis — another element it shares with the new novel.
That Old Cape Magic begins sunnily, with Griffin and his wife, Joy, en route separately to Cape Cod for the wedding of a friend of their daughter, Laura. Griffin and Joy have been squabbling, but he has other reasons to be happy: He's just finished the academic year at the Connecticut college where he is an English professor and is enjoying that giddy teacher's freedom students can't imagine. He's also going back to the place that played a resonant part in his boyhood.
Griffin is, after a detour, a second-generation academic, son of two college professors who shared a ferocious marriage, a low level of interest in their only child and one month each summer in the place they dreamed of living: Cape Cod.
Griffin remembers, "His parents had been less wed to each other than to a shared sense of grievance over being exiled eleven months of every year to the 'Mid-f---ing-west,' a phrase they didn't say so much as spit." Despite Ivy League educations, the Griffins could never find positions in the top-level Northeastern universities where they felt they belonged, and that bitterness steered their lives.
Griffin is taking one of them back to Cape Cod with him in the trunk of his car — he intends to scatter his father's ashes during his visit. His mother is still very much alive and one of the most vivid presences in the book. Acerbic, brilliant, aggressively snobbish, she sees the world entirely through an academic perspective. When Griffin was a young man, his mother didn't care about his girlfriends' looks or personalities, she just wanted to know where they did their graduate work.
She was appalled when he married Joy, who hadn't even done graduate work, and even more appalled when Griffin went off to Los Angeles to write for the movies. He was happy enough to keep his parents at arm's length from his own idyllic young marriage, fearing their relationship — the ferocious marriage having turned into an even more ferocious divorce — might poison his.
But that was a long time ago. Griffin is 57 now, and somehow screenwriting and romping through wild weekends in California have turned into an academic career and a big house in the Connecticut suburbs. Yet Griffin is pretty happy — or at least he thinks he is.
The first wedding turns his world upside down in all kinds of ways. In the book's second half, he's heading to daughter Laura's wedding in Maine a year later, with two urns of ashes in his trunk and a date who isn't Joy.
Russo has always written insightfully about family relationships, and he's on his game here. But he's playing with a lighter touch — as its bracketing weddings suggest, That Old Cape Magic is comedy, not tragedy.
Two of Russo's books have been made into movies: Robert Benton directed the splendid theatrical version of Nobody's Fool, and HBO produced a fine adaptation of Empire Falls, for which Russo wrote the teleplay. He has written other screenplays as well, and in That Old Cape Magic he serves up a story ready for its closeup: sharply funny dialogue, a crisp and shapely plot, beguiling settings and likable characters (even Griffin's formidable mother gets some redeeming moments), plus a couple of wildly hilarious big scenes.
Russo plays in sophisticated ways with the differences between novels and movies, and he pokes fun at the sometimes unbelievable coincidences movies ask us to swallow. When Griffin is driving around the foggy Cape with his father's ashes, imagining a conversation with Joy as lines of dialogue, he suddenly comes upon a cottage where his family once stayed decades before — a setting essential to a short story he's trying to write. "At first, he wasn't sure he trusted his eyes. That he should stumble on the place now seemed beyond improbable, as if the physical world were suddenly and mysteriously linked to his own psychic necessity." Or to a movie script.
Heck, one of Russo's characters even suggests who should play her in the movie version. "Write a movie with a girl like me in it sometime. . . . With Susan Sarandon. She'd make a good me."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.