I was so excited by discovering Empire Falls earlier this year that I went right out and bought a more recent book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic. This novel observes the thoughts of Jack Griffin as his marriage implodes and again a year later as he tries to make amends.
Griffin is obsessed with not becoming his parents, a couple of academic snobs who have spent their lifetimes criticizing everything, willfully ruining other people’s possessions, and making enemies in their Midwest university departments. Yet he has given up a successful screen-writing career to teach at a New England college that his parents always aspired to, and bought an old, charming house. These decisions make him feel like he is living the lives they wanted.
As Griffin carts around his father’s ashes on the way to a wedding on Cape Cod, he behaves spitefully to his wife Joy, whom he blames for the changes in his life. In his drives around the Cape, where he and his family spent all their summers, he thinks about his past, his parents, and his marriage.
In the second part of the novel, he returns to the Cape for his daughter’s wedding with his father’s ashes still in the car, along with his mother’s. He has come with a date but his real desire is to win back his wife.
I think several things hampered me from enjoying this novel as much as I did the other. First, Griffin isn’t very likeable and his parents seem repellant, although we have some evidence that his memories may not all be accurate. One of the difficulties in Griffin’s marriage is his dislike of Joy’s family, but Joy’s family is almost stereotypically drawn as wacky, loud, and obnoxious, so it’s hard to appreciate why Joy cares for them as much as she does. Aside from being uncaring about his wife’s family and her needs, Griffin seems to be clueless about many things in his own life. Generally, since I usually need to relate to at least one character and only Griffin is fully realized, I found the novel a little unsatisfying.