Although "That Old Cape Magic" leaves behind Richard Russo's usual haunts, there's still plenty of haunting in the novel. And these are familiar ghosts. Gone though the decaying mill town may be, Russo's signature difficult parents, forever distorting life for their offspring, are very much in evidence.
On its pleasant, smoothly crafted surface, the novel recounts the happenings surrounding two weddings, a year apart. The first brings the protagonist, Jack Griffin, and his wife, Joy, to Cape Cod to celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura's best friend. Because the Cape was where Griffin vacationed as a child and honeymooned with Joy, the wedding also gives him good reason to reflect on his boyhood and his own marriage.
The two, of course, are linked -- because his whole adult life seems to have been lived in resistance to his parents' model, which is on full display in their never-quite-successful escapes to the Cape every summer. Inevitably, this toxic model has its effect on Griffin's relationship with Joy, and working this out is what takes up most of the character's thoughts and actions in the novel.
Russo, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for "Empire Falls," is a fluid writer whose prose will carry a reader happily along. But Griffin, whose perspective dominates the novel, is that most problematic of characters, the indecisive protagonist. He remembers willing his father to act, "to do something, because it frightened him to see anybody stand frozen in one place for so long, unable to take that first step, the one that implied a destination." And now he finds himself similarly stalled, in a plot without much of a destination.
If Griffin's father is ineffectual, his mother is downright loathsome, her nasty pronouncements sounding in her son's ear even after her death. Together, mother and father apparently reduced everything in the world (like rental properties on the Cape) to two categories: "can't afford it" and "wouldn't have it as a gift." That leaves only one option: Always settling for what's never good enough.
Between one wedding and the next -- his daughter's -- Griffin gets a chance to come to terms with the damage that his parents' philosophy has done. His misadventures along the way are of a contemplative sort, which makes this novel perhaps a little more like life than most, for better or for worse.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis.