POLAND PAST AND PRESENT
In her acclaimed debut novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True, Brigid Pasulka deftly mixes history and romance to tell the tale of two lovers living in Poland during World War II. The novel’s protagonist, a young man named the Pigeon, falls for the beautiful Anielica and, to demonstrate his adoration, builds a home for her family. He sides with the resistance during the war, harboring his Jewish relatives and protecting his village. After the war, he becomes engaged to Anielica, and they move to Krakow in hopes of a better life. But their dreams soon wither in the face of the new Communist regime. The story of their granddaughter, Beata, brings the novel full circle. Beata, who hasn’t inherited Anielica’s beauty, has no prospects for marriage in modern-day Krakow. When family secrets come to light, she realizes that she must build her own future, and—empowered by the past—she does just that. Rich with detail, Pasulka’s novel is a profound exploration of politics, history and the role of the individual within both.
BACK TO THE CAPE
In his poignant seventh novel, That Old Cape Magic (Vintage, $15, 272 pages, ISBN 9781400030910), Richard Russo explores middle age and family life in ways that feel fresh and perceptive. An English professor stuck in a mediocre marriage, 57-year-old Jack Griffin finds himself at odds with his life. Thirty years ago, he gave up a career as a screenwriter in Los Angeles to marry his wife, Joy, and settle in New England. But now Jack is tired of academia and longs to return to his old vocation. As he tries to cope with the memory of his dead father, he must contend with his feisty 85-year-old mother, who hounds him by phone from her nursing home. Past and present collide when Jack travels to Cape Cod—the scene of many childhood vacations and his own honeymoon—for a friend’s wedding, an event that stirs up [Thu Jul 24 11:24:17 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. trouble and sends his life spinning in an unexpected direction. Bringing his trademark wit and emotional sensitivity to Jack’s story, Russo writes about matters close to every reader’s heart, and his delivery, as always, is impeccable.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Suspenseful, compelling and ultimately unforgettable, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply follows the stories of three very different characters who share a common desire—to escape from the dead-end circumstances that confine them. Anxious to make an exit from her insular hometown, Lucy Lattimore takes off with a dynamic teacher from her high school, who tempts her with promises of money and travel. Lucy’s narrative is paralleled by that of Ryan Schuyler, a college dropout who looks up his long-lost father—a crook living in the Michigan woods—and becomes involved in the identity theft business. Rounding out the novel is the story of Miles Cheshire and his search for his schizophrenic twin brother, who may be the culprit behind the death of their mother. Richly rewarding, Chaon’s newest novel is a standout thanks to rich characterization, innovative plotting and prose that’s poetic yet edgy.Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
As a child, Jack Griffin vacationed on Cape Cod with his parents, academics who sought respite on the Cape each summer after begrudgingly spending 11 months of the year in the Midwest.
Years later, Jack and his new wife, Joy, honeymooned on Cape Cod, dreamily making plans for their life (thereafter referred to as the Great Truro Accord) which included “A ‘professor’s house’ . . . a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and comfortable chairs for reading, a big OED on its own stand, a small stereo for quiet, contemplative music.”
In middle-age, Jack and Joy return to the Cape with most, if not all, of their dreams having been realized, to attend the first of two weddings that bookend That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo’s reflective new novel.
This time, however, there is more that brings Jack to the Cape than the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. He is here to find the right spot to scatter his father’s ashes, which have been traveling with him in the trunk of his car for nearly a year. This weekend begins what will become the most transformative year in their lives. By the time Jack and Joy reach a second wedding at the end of the book, the tectonic plates of their lives have shifted, leading them to ask the question: if we could do it all again, would we? Is what we imagined and achieved in our lives what we really want?
Russo’s novel is ultimately a quiet study of middle age—of the time in between the harried pace of raising small children and the slow, muddied walk of our waning years. Russo’s use of symbolism is far from subtle, but his richly drawn characters redeem the novel. He has painted a portrait of Jack’s parents so vivid, you can practically hear the crisp, patronizing texture to their voices when they speak of, well, anything.
Over the course of the novel, Jack comes to realize what a profound impact his parents have had on his life, despite his very best efforts to prevent just such a thing. Russo’s characterizations of the Griffins will have the same effect on the reader, living long after the last page has been turned.
Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.
Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Joy and Jack Griffin head to Cape Cod to attend a friend's wedding, where their daughter Laura announces her own engagement. Sensing the malaise in their 30-year marriage, the Griffins decide to reconnect by visiting the B & B where they once honeymooned. Their arrival in separate vehicles seems symbolic of the discord in their hearts and minds. Jack, still coming to terms with his father's death and bristling at his mother's constant criticism, feels restless in his career as a college professor, wondering whether he should have left a lucrative screenwriting gig in L.A. Joy, chafing at Jack's implicit displeasure with her sunny disposition and maddening family, longs for an empathetic listener. Russo lovingly explores the deceptive nature of memory as each exquisitely drawn character attempts to deconstruct the family myths that inform their relationships. VERDICT The Griffins may not find magic on old Cape Cod, but readers will. Those who savored Russo's long, languid novels (e.g., Pulitzer winner Empire Falls) may be surprised by this one's rapid pace, but Russo's familiar compassion for the vicissitudes of the human condition shines through. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]--Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL[Page 74]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Crafting a dense, flashback-filled narrative that stutters across two summer outings to New England (and as many weddings), Russo (Empire Falls) convincingly depicts a life coming apart at the seams, but the effort falls short of the literary magic that earned him a Pulitzer. A professor in his 50s who aches to go back to screenwriting, Jack Griffin struggles to divest himself of his parents. Lugging around, first, his father's, then both his parents' urns in the trunk of his convertible, he hopes to find an appropriate spot to scatter their ashes while juggling family commitments--his daughter's wedding, a separation from his wife. Indeed, his parents--especially his mother, who calls her son incessantly before he starts hearing her from beyond the grave--occupy the narrative like capricious ghosts, and Griffin inherits "the worst attributes of both." Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered--Griffin wading into the surf to try to scatter his father's ashes, his wheelchair-bound father-in-law plummeting off a ramp and into a yew--the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo's earlier work. (Aug.)[Page 106]. Copyright 2009 Reed Business Information.