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Russo Explores Memory, Marriage In 'Old Cape Magic'

Aug 4, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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Author Richard Russo sifts through failed marriages, memory and the bonds between parents and children in his new novel, That Old Cape Magic.

Though the novel presents a dim view of relationships, Russo tells Steve Inskeep that readers shouldn't presume the sentiment expressed in his fiction is a reflection on his own marriage, which is in its 37th year.

"I'll tell you this much," Russo says. "[My wife] really wanted to go on this particular book tour to reassure people that I was not writing about our marriage."

Russo's protagonist in the novel, Jack Griffin, is a professor and writer who spent the summers of his childhood on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. When a wedding brings Griffin back to the Cape as an adult, he begins reflecting over his parents' marriage and subsequent divorce.

Russo says the novel's setting is important; a book about parents and children needed to be set in a locale where the past is as alive as the present. He describes the Cape as a "weird mix ... some parts of the Cape are very well-to-do, and then there are other parts of the Cape that seem to have this frozen-in-amber quality."

In the novel, Griffin decides to write about his childhood on the Cape — including his love for a neighboring family. But his first draft of the story isn't any good because the characters don't come to life.

Russo, who used to teach fiction writing, says this is a problem that he frequently sees in beginning writers:

"The deepest failures any fiction writer is likely to have are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story that he or she is telling. And I think that's why Jack Griffin can't write this story ... there's something about himself that he hasn't quite recognized."

Russo says this idea of missing the point is as common in life as in novels. And as memories corrode or morph, people — parents and children, husbands and wives — tend to form different ideas of the past.

"Toward the end, when Griffin is tending his mother in her final illness, she begins to contradict his version of the past. And she — on her death bed, in a really heroic struggle — is to reinterpret her life and to bring him on board. And in reinterpreting her own life, is also trying to reinterpret his as well. Memory is treacherous."

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