Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic is one of the most heartwarming novels I have read this year. As a story of American academic life, it is far more enjoyable than Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
The protagonist, Jack Griffin, is a middle-aged former Hollywood scriptwriter who has become an academic like his parents —- two English professors from Ivy League schools who are as promiscuous as they are snobbish. It is their back story that adds to the entertainment. His mother, in her old age when the novel begins, is as sharp as Betsey Trotwood and no less funny.
As Griffin drives to Cape Cod on his summer vacation, carrying his father’s ashes to be scattered into the sea, his mother calls him on his cell phone and tells him where to dispose of the ashes. “I’d just feel better if the Cape was between us, me on one side and him on the other,” she adds. She is carrying on the bickering which did not end after their divorce.
Griffin is carrying his father’s ashes to the Cape because that was their favourite place. That’s where they used to escape every summer from the “Mid-fucking-West”, as his parents used to call it — a large state university in Indiana, where they taught, unable to get jobs in their beloved New England.
As he drives through Boston on the way to the Cape, he remembers how his parents used to sing, “That old Cape magic”, changing the lyrics of That Old Black Magic. Hence the title of the novel.
I remember the allure, too, of Boston Harbour and Quincy Market, which we visited when our son graduated on a scholarship this summer from a liberal arts college in the Midwest. And, no, it wasn’t the “Mid-fucking-west”. We loved his college. The teachers and students were so friendly. They congratulated our son for getting a scholarship to an Ivy League graduate school. A smiling woman in a professor’s cap and gown for the graduation ceremony who had been to the same school assured us it was nice and friendly too.