Friday, October 23, 2009

Review: Middle-Aged Ennui


Every time I read a Richard Russo novel, I fall in love with his writing a little bit more. It’s an unconventional love—mismatched demographics and target audiences. I often wonder if I would better understand the complex emotions Russo conveys in his novels if I were thirty years older, but our love doesn’t play by the rules.

Russo’s newest novel, That Old Cape Magic, has the same components of his others—a simple story line, evolving relationships, and characters with emotions that are often hidden under the surface. In this one, Jack Griffin (just goes by ‘Griffin’) is on his way to Cape Cod where he will meet his wife and daughter for the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. In his trunk, he’s been carrying his father’s ashes for over a year; he just can’t seem to get around to scattering them. And his mother…she’s alive and he just can’t seem to get rid of her either. Griffin is the son of two (obnoxious) college professors, and he grew up in Northeastern academia. His youthful “rebellion” led him to LA as a Hollywood screenwriter, but a marriage pact led him back east to work as a college professor [newsflash Griffin, you are your parents]. The wedding weekend in the Cape was enjoyable enough, but it just seems like something is nagging at both Griffin and his marriage, something he can’t really put his finger on, yet knows isn’t right. [By the way, I said Russo’s storylines were simple, but not simple to explain.]

And this is when I begin to love Russo and his writing. He creates and defines these characters that are (usually) middle-aged and seem perfectly normal, but it’s the stuff below the surface that creates the conflict. It’s almost like disappointment with life, but I wouldn’t define it as simply as that. Russo has a gift of conveying these complex emotions in a single sentence or paragraph, where you just say, “Aha, I know what he means!” And I probably don’t even really know what he means since I’m only 24, but I feel like I do.

This was my favorite one. When Griffin and his wife, Joy, were arguing:

“But usually their disputes were constrained. They were about something, not everything.”

That sentence right there just summed up the whole crux of their issues. Yes, I said, I can see exactly how this fight is different and how their relationship has changed in their 30-something years of marriage. I wouldn’t say read Russo for gripping entertainment. You definitely need to know the style you’ve gotten yourself into when you pick up a Russo work. I have a thing for character-driven novels, but usually ones that also follow some sort of storyline [hence my lackluster opinion of The Elegance of the Hedgehog]. This is a category Russo fits into perfectly. While most of the story focuses on Griffin, the other characters are entertaining as well. I never got to know them as intimately as Griffin but well enough to decide if I would want to hang out with them in real life. It’s also a fairly short novel (at 250 odd pages), so it’s really worth a try.

Ah, Richard Russo. I wonder if I’ll be fifty-three someday and thinking of you and how I’m glad I learned about these complex emotions long before middle-age.


J.T. Oldfield said…

Wait, what? I am never going to grow out of my ennui? Crap. Oh well…

Diane said…

Great review. I LOVED this book! As a baby boomer, I really appreciated it.