The Cape's Tragic Characters

If the California coast is where characters reinvent themselves, the New England shore is where things fall apart. Richard Russo extends the tradition with That Old Cape Magic.

The central question of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo’s new novel, That Old Cape Magic, is whether Griffin, the protagonist, can pull himself and his family back together after a disastrous year. The central location: the New England shore.

For Griffin, the Cape isn’t just a summer escape, but a symbol of something deep and ineffable—the mystery of his family and himself, the seat of his lifelong joys and sorrows. It’s the place where his now-deceased parents dreamed of moving but could never quite afford to buy, just as they kept contentment with their lot perennially out of reach. And in his own life, it’s the place where he and his wife Joy’s marriage was sealed (“The Great Truro accord” is what he calls the honeymoon talk in which they planned out their lives) and also where their union became unglued.

Russo joins a long tradition of authors who use the churning Atlantic waters off New England to symbolize something cathartic and tragic for their characters.

In setting his latest novel in Cape Cod, Russo joins a long tradition of authors who use the churning Atlantic waters off New England to symbolize something cathartic and tragic for their characters. Since Herman Melville sent Ishmael to sea from the harbor of Nantucket, the Cape and its island neighbors have carried a potent symbolic significance. If the California seashore is where characters go to reinvent themselves and forget the past, and the glitz of Long Island is where outsiders like Gatsby and his ilk seek social triumph, then the New England shore stands for something more primal: the place where things fall apart and lives reach their frenzied nadir and must be rebuilt.

A reason, perhaps, for this phenomenon is that so many authors themselves vacation there, as Sara Nelson writes. But there’s also an epic quality to vacationing on a New England beach, where the water is rough and chilly, the weather is unpredictable, and the ghosts of Puritan pioneers inhabit the coves. It’s also a place of seasonal pilgrimage, a place that money and distance render elusive as a permanent life, but accessible once a year both to mark the passage of time and pause it.

Last summer, Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition, like That Old Cape Magic, began and ended with a gathering on the Cape. Unlike Griffin’s family, who constantly search for the perfect cottage, the McKotches return to the same homey place year after year. During their first, happy-enough gathering, mother Pauline watches the second generation walk down to the beach. Seeing them in their suits, she begins to suspect that something is wrong—she notices how small and undeveloped her 12-year-old daughter is compared with her younger cousins. When the family, or most of it, reunites 20 years later, at the same house, much has been torn apart. Gwen has a genetic condition, Turner syndrome, which has kept her body in a prepubescent state. Their varied reactions to her diagnosis and their later efforts to rescue her from an unorthodox liaison have sent fissures throughout their once-stable clan. But at the Cape house where everything began to unravel, children, siblings, and parents look at each other again and begin to find forgiveness possible.

Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone uses the Cape not to begin the story but as a setting for its darkest and brightest moments. His unhappy heroine, Dolores Price, who describes the Cape as looking like “an old lady’s bony finger” on the map, drives out to Wellfleet, to the spot where she’s heard that group of whales have beached themselves. The proximity to death and depressed Dolores’ identification with the whales dredges up her own past trauma and precipitates a suicide attempt. Years of sadness and hope later, Dolores’ partner, Thayer, takes her back to the Cape and her final, joyful sight as the novel closes is a whale breaching in the ocean off the shore.

While the Cape is a key setting in all these books, in Judy Blume’s bestseller Summer Sisters, Martha’s Vineyard, just a short ferry ride away, feels like a character itself. It’s the site of the twists and turns in the friendship of the titular “sisters,” Caitlin and Vix, a friendship forged over summer trips with Caitlin’s family and experiments in backseat makeout sessions with local boys. But one summer, when Caitlin’s beachside birthday party plans get a little too wild for upright Vix, the latter submerges herself in the waves in a fit of paranoid pique and has to be dragged out by her stoned coterie. Despite this and more betrayals on Caitlin’s part, the spell cast by those Vineyard weeks and the taste of the good life they offered staid working-class Vix is impossible to shake off. She marries a man with a connection to her island summers, and the novel ends with Vix on a Vineyard bluff, lamenting her summer sister, who has been mysteriously lost at sea, convinced that if Caitlin called her out of the void, she’d gladly answer.

Vix, Dolores, the McKotches, and Griffin all seek closure in the ocean spots where they experienced catastrophic setbacks. And these are just a few of the dozens of books that use the Cape and its environs as a setting for climaxes, denouements, and precipitating events. As Russo’s novel acknowledges, when Griffin stands waist-deep in the water, struggling with a vat of ashes, the Cape and its islands have become a place in the literary imagination where dreams fall of a cliff and are reborn in the surf of the Atlantic.

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. She writes regularly about gender and pop culture for RH Reality Check. Her work has also been published in Bitch Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, AlterNet, and Publishers Weekly, among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.