I have only read two of Pat Conroy’s novels, but I know when I have found gold, and his work is gold. I have a few more of his novels waiting in the wing, and if they are anything like those discussed below, I can only imagine what more wonderful characters I am bound to fall in love with. Conroy’s southern literature is spellbinding. His character development is near perfection, his settings captivating and atmospheric, and his diction is some of the most vibrant and clever wording I have ever laid eyes on. I may sound like I’m just spewing praise, but I am giving you all my honest truth. The emotional impact of reading his work will leave you feeling the same way I do, but don’t just take my word for it- give his novels a chance.
South of Broad
Published: August 2009, Nan A. Talese
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: AIDS, abuse, suicide, neglect, death, adultery.
South of Broad is about 500 pages, and I read it in a week, stealing every chance I got to read a few pages. A friend (shout out to Sydney!) told me South of Broad had been sitting on her bookshelf, forgotten, for a long time, and her friend had highly recommended it. She brought it in for me to check out, and once I got into the first chapter, I got the feeling that I was reading something very special.
The hard part about describing this novel is that there is so much detail and character development that I know I won’t be able to concisely summarize it without leaving some major interest points out, but I’ll put it this way: think of this novel as a cross between Gone With the Wind and The Outsiders.
Set in the city of Charleston, SC, the story bounces (with easy readability for no confusion) from the past to the present in five parts. Part One, the reader is introduced to the main character, Leo, his family, and his dark childhood, and we are lightly introduced to his soon-to-be core of friends. Part Two, we flash forward 20 years, and we learn about present day Leo and his relationships with his close friends, and to what lengths they all go to for their friendships. Part Three, the action gets fast paced and thrilling (and I’ll leave it at that). Part Four, is a flashback to Leo in his senior year of high school, and we learn about how the core group of friends developed their friendship. Part Five is literally and figuratively how Leo weathers the storm that has changed his life.
Not only did Conroy write a very convincing and detailed story, but he manages to make the characters so witty and conversational. I couldn’t help but want to be friends with all of them, and kept reflecting on the wonderful friendships that I have made over the years, but particularly those of my core high school friends. These characters are a mismatch group of misfits that came together to share a deep sense of family- a bond of trust and respect despite class, bloodlines, and ghosts in the past. Their commentary and fast wit had me laughing along with them, and along side that, their fears and sadness had me held in suspense and empathy. There are so many scenes, so many running jokes that I can’t possibly (even though I tried) quote to recreate what Conroy has delicately woven into his story.
I urge anyone and everyone to pick this one up off the shelf. I will be buying a copy of this book for my shelves, so that I may go back to Charleston with Leo and his friends once more.
Prince of Tides
Published: October 1986, Houghton Mifflin Company
Trigger Warning: This novel and it’s review contain descriptions of and mention the following topics: physical abuse, child abuse, mental abuse, racism, rape, depression, suicide, mental illness, shock therapy, hallucinations, death.
In The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo is the main character with a lot of family issues from his childhood. He and his twin sister Savannah struggle with their past but in different ways. Tom utilizes dark, self-deprecating humor to battle his inner turmoil, while Savannah goes through bouts of severe depression and self harm. Tom, as her twin and only living brother (another facet of the troublesome family history), always goes to her side when she ends up in a hospital after her suicide attempts.
“The story of my family was the story of salt water, of boats and shrimp, of tears and storm.”
This time, when Tom’s mother relays her latest incident, Tom finds Savannah in a catatonic state. Her therapist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, has noted that she was seemingly mumbling random words upon her arrival and plays back the audio recording of it- to which Tom understands and recognizes snippets from his own childhood memories. From here, he works with Savannah’s therapist, dissecting their childhood past that involves their respect for the black widow, the abuse from their father, and their mother’s emotional manipulation. He also works through the pain of his wife’s affair and what that means for his marriage.
As Tom and Lowenstein delve into the past, they form a friendship and respect for each other. Tom reveals the threads that weave together to form the Wingo family tapestry, and though colorful, it does have it’s dark spaces. Once fully fleshed out, Tom has to face how his past and present have affected him, and what pieces he can put back together for the future.
“In an early poem, Savannah called him “the liege of storm, the thane of winds” and when she came to New York, she always claimed, smiling, that she and her brothers had been fathered by a blitzkrieg.”
Yet again, Conroy has blown me away with his poetic and descriptive writing. Midway through the novel, I felt that same emotional tug that I felt when I first read South of Broad. Conroy’s character development is superb- I wasn’t 100% in love with Tom and his dramatics in the first 150 pages, but after that, I found the more he shared about his past and the way he restarted his life in NYC made him so much more charming than his original hard edge. I loved the relationship he had with his siblings and how despite their family’s social status growing up, they were always proud to wear their last names, and the clothes they had, and be the characters they grew up to be. Their adventures and understanding of each other, and the way they could forgive the wrongs of the past was so captivating and endearing.
“Swift and dazzling through the light I ran, past the eyes of my screaming father, who followed my progress through a glass aperture, past my twin sister leaping and twisting on the sidelines, cherishing the moment because she cherished me, past my mother, whose beauty could not disguise her shame at who she was and what she had come from. But at this moment- mythic and elegiac- she was the mother of Tom Wingo…”
Though the novel was long, Tom’s recollections would whisk me away, and Conroy would describe a moment or place as if the reader were right there- The Prince of Tides is absolutely atmospheric. After reading The Lost Prince about Conroy and his past, I could see how he put himself and his personal touches into his novel- such as the problems with his father and the separation with his wife. I also recognized the borrowed name of Mewshaw, the author of The Lost Prince, within the novel.
Although it’s an emotional rollercoaster, I would still absolutely recommend the novel, and I intend to continue reading more of Conroy’s masterpieces.