Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Review: South of Broad, by Pat Conroy

South of Broad, by Pat Conroy
514 pages
Nan A. Talese, published 2009

This weekend marked the unofficial beginning of summer and my most recent read, South of Broad, the newest novel from Pat Conroy, would be the perfect book to lose yourself in while poolside or on the beach.

(Not like I was lucky enough to actually be in either of those places during this long weekend, but hey ... a girl can dream, right?)

At 514 pages (the paperback is a whopping 544), South of Broad is a hefty tome and initially, it seems kind of daunting to contemplate such a long (at least for me) book. But make no mistake: this doesn't feel like a chunkster. For starters, we're talking Pat Conroy, people.  The same Pat Conroy whose writing just flows like the tides he writes so eloquently of. Before you know it, another 50, 75, 100 pages have gone by and you find yourself craving just one more page, maybe one more chapter ....

South of Broad spans several decades in the lives of a group of close-knit high school friends in Charleston, South Carolina (Conroy's home turf). Each of the characters brings their own baggage to this story - there's suicide, abuse in every form (physical, emotional, sexual), alcoholism, racism, infidelity, unrequited love, mental illness, celebrity, homophobia, and probably a few more -isms that I'm forgetting. Fans of Pat Conroy's bestselling novel The Prince of Tides (which I also loved) will recognize some familiar subject matter in this material, but that is OK.

(It should be said that South of Broad contains more than a fair share of unpolitically-correct language, which reflects what I'd imagine would have been common dialogue in the Deep South during the tumultuous '60s. In these occasionally-more enlightened times, reading such language can be a bit jarring.)

The story opens in 1969, in Charleston, South Carolina, and is narrated by Leo King. A high school senior, Leo's family has been shattered by his older brother's suicide, an event after which Leo understandably is never the same.  Each member of the King family deals with their loss - and personal demons - in their own way. 

An innocuous request from Leo's mother (who is the school principal) to befriend several new students at school - orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead as well as the King's new neighbors, twins Sheba and Trevor Poe - set in motion a chain of events, friendships, and alliances that will span the next 20 years. When they come together after years apart to help one of their own, they are tested and changed by everything that they know to be true (or thought they knew to be true) about each other and themselves.

Yeah, it sounds a little Big Chill-ish (also set in South Carolina!) and in the hands of a less talented writer, this could easily fall flat. But as I said earlier, this is a Pat Conroy novel that we're talking about here. The man knows how to write, and he knows his material - the streets of Charleston (South of Broad takes its name from a section of Charleston that is home to most of that town's elite and society folk), the Low Country, the food, the class distinctions, the dysfunctional families and the dark subject matter. Even with some of the heavy topics, there are parts of South of Broad that are rather funny (Leo's mother's groupie-like devotion and downright fangirl-ism of author James Joyce, for one).

This is a novel that is incredibly well-done on so many levels.  Pat Conroy has a gift for writing about the darkest and most tragic of subjects, and for giving his readers characters that will stay with them long after the book ends.  Both work well in this novel.

Still, as much as I loved South of Broad, there were a couple aspects that kind of irked me - although, it must be said, certainly not enough to ruin the novel (far from it) or cause me not to recommend it. For instance, it bothered me that I wasn't more sympathetic to or more connected with one of the main characters, Sheba Poe.  Throughout the story, Sheba is repeatedly described as being exceptionally beautiful, perfect in appearance in every possible way. She has an aura around her, one that she uses to her advantage in her chosen career. In parts of the novel, Conroy's superlative prose about Sheba struck me as occasionally over the top (perhaps intentional, as Sheba herself is over the top, but slightly annoying in parts.) 

There's also a verbal catfight-type of scene early in the novel between Sheba and Leo's mother, and I never quite understood what exactly happened to cause such ferocious venom to be spewed between the two. Similarly, Sheba's father is a menacing figure throughout the book, and there's reference to the fact that he has terrorized each member of the group of friends. Perhaps I missed it, but with the exception of Leo, I'm not sure what happened with the others.

Finally, there were a couple suspenseful scenes that I figured out fairly early on - although there is one final revelation at the end of the novel that I did not see coming.

It has been 14 years since we were treated to a Pat Conroy book and in my opinion, it was well worth the wait.

Just like the wait through an long, dark winter that brings a glorious summer.

FTC disclaimer: I borrowed this from the library, as well as listened to the audio version (which is excellent and an audiobook that I would highly recommend.  The narration by Mark Deakins is wonderful and kept my interest each time I listened to it.)

What Other Bloggers Thought:

Books and Cooks
Jen's Book Thoughts
Lakeside Musing
The Literate Housewife Review

 Also well worth the read:  Author and blogger (Scobberlotch) Karen Harrington's post about meeting - and cooking with! - Pat Conroy!
copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Laura @ I'm Booking It said...

You know, I've never read a Pat Conroy book. At least not in the last 20 years. I may have one on my ancient TBR shelves, but somehow I never got around to it.

I may have to change that :-).

Thanks for the review!

Beth F said...

I really need to read this. I don't know what has stopped me.

JoAnn said...

Interesting... I didn't feel at all connected to Sheba, either. I still loved the book and hope we don't have to wait 14 years for another. Charleston is a beautiful city - definitely worth visiting if you get the chance! Thanks for linking to my review.

Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I just got South of Broad last week, after itching to get it for quite awhile. I loved Prince of Tides (the book AND the movie), so I'm really looking forward to this one.

Thanks for your wonderful review.

Lately, I've been reading many books set in Charleston. Soon I'll feel as if I've been there!

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Laura ~ given that we have such similar taste in books, I think you might like this one.

Beth F. ~ I think you'll like it, too.

JoAnn ~ So glad to hear another person say that! I thought it was just me. Do you think that Conroy intended for Sheba to be a distant character?

Laurel ~ I'm really looking forward to your review of this, especially given your professional background. And I had to laugh about reading a lot of books about Charleston - by sheer coincidence, the author of my current read is also a Charlestonian, so I feel the same way.

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

You've sold me too. I only read Prince of Tides years ago, which I loved. Wonderful storyteller.


Lori said...

I've never read Pat Conroy so this will be my first. There was a copy sitting on the give away shelf at work and I just couldn't resist. I think I'll bump it up in the TBR pile. Thanks for the review!!