Picks and Pans Review: Love Among the Dunes

updated 08/10/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/10/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Richard Russo |

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Loyal Russo readers will recognize the middle-age angst and tangled family ties. But the Empire Falls author's new novel is his most intimate yet: an astute portrait of a 30-year marriage, in all its promise and pain. As Jack Griffin heads to Cape Cod for the wedding of his daughter's friend, he brings along his father's ashes to scatter at one of his family's beloved vacation spots. The trip launches Griffin, a professor and screenwriter, on an inward journey back through his lonely years growing up with college prof parents who were both insufferable snobs. (Of his best boyhood friend's mom and dad, his mother once sniffed, "They teach junior high.") Like his parents' union, Griffin's marriage to Joy, a college admissions officer, slowly disintegrates, their common goals straining under the weight of polar-opposite upbringings. When his overbearing mother dies, Griffin decides to dump her ashes too on the Cape, her pretentious voice a spectral presence he can't shake—like the lingering resentment he felt toward both parents. Russo has skewered academic types before, in his hilarious novel Straight Man. But his honest, heartfelt storytelling—like a cooling breeze off a certain New England shoreline—has never felt fresher.

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