The length and depth of the nation's soul-crushing recession contain few everyday surprises for author Richard Russo. That's because Russo has crafted a career writing about the failing, tired mill towns of the Northeast, from upstate New York where he grew up to coastal Maine where he now lives. Such communities have been mired in their own private slumps for decades.
In such novels as "Nobody's Fool" and "Empire Falls," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, Russo painted portraits of flawed yet endearing characters struggling to make better lives in places where nobody misses the recent boom times because they never arrived.
But Russo is trying something different with his latest novel, "That Old Cape Magic." In it, a seemingly content middle-aged academic (Russo used to teach at Colby) travels to Cape Cod to attend a wedding, and dredges up old memories. His personal life quickly starts to unravel, and the book charts the twists and turns of the next year.
Explaining why he picked the fashionable Cape as a focus, Russo told an interviewer he was intrigued by a question: "Why do people believe that happiness is more likely to find you in one place than another? It has something to do with what you can and can't afford, what you think you'll one day be able to swing if things go well. Except that even when they go well, you discover it's still unaffordable, which tives the desired place a magical quality ... I chose the Cape because it's always been expensive and just keeps getting more so, but it could have been any number of similar places."
In other words, we think that if we just had that summer beach house, we'd be happy. But whether Russo's characters are sipping coffee in a shabby diner in Empire Falls or watching a spectacular sunset on Falmouth's cliffs, life's not so simple. Russo will read from ‘‘That Old Cape Magic’’ on Thursday, August 4, at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge.