Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy is my favorite contemporary author, so you can imagine my excitement when I learned he was publishing his first novel in 14 years. Wow. Has it really been that long? Pat Conroy fans rejoice! You will not be disappointed with South of Broad.

Synopsis From Random House:Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a well-known Joyce scholar. After Leo's older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades-from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Once again, Conroy delivers us directly to South Carolina with the beauty of his language that creates crystal clear images of Charleston, a town knee-deep in history and tradition. It's so easy to get swept up in his imagery, that even when we are delivered one horrific blow after another, we, along with his characters, find refuge in the streets and rivers that belong to the South. Charleston is not just a place or setting -- it becomes one of the most powerful characters in the story.

As with previous Pat Conroy's novels, I found myself completely in love with the main character. Leo King is the reason this motley crew bands together and stays together for twenty years. He is not the most handsome, the most athletic, or the most charming. He is real, and he is honest, and he is all heart. Leo's friends answer his prayers with friendships anyone would envy, including me; yet, these same friends who fill the void his brother left, are also the ones that open his eyes to the deepest hurt and heartbreak imaginable.

"If I knew then what I have come to learn, I would never have made a batch of cookies for the new family across the street, never uttered a single word to the orphans, and never introduced myself to the two students who were kicked out of Porter-Gaud School and quickly enrolled at my own Peninsula High for their senior year...But fate comes at you cat-footed, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty."
- Leo King.

One of the things I loved most about this novel was the way the time line flipped back and forth. The story begins in 1969 - how it all began. Then it fast-forwards twenty years into the future - what is to come. We are then brought back to 1969 - how it came to be. Finally, we fast-forward once again to 1989 - wrapping everything up. I've seen this done in other books, but this timeline was done brilliantly.

If you're looking for drama, this book has it. If you're looking for a story full of love, South of Broad has that too. If you're looking for a tale of friendship, look no further. I also have to say, if you're not looking to get your heart broken into a million pieces, you might want to read Beach Music instead. But let's be honest, by the time your heart is broken, you have already fallen in love.

I mentioned above that this is Conroy's first novel in 14 years. In that time, a lot has happened in my life, the greatest of which was becoming a mother. Nothing has changed me more than having children. Anyone who knows me understands how I can become so wrapped up in a well written book, that I have trouble with certain content. I can't handle books that show even a hint of child abuse. My heart aches right now, because there was way too much of it in South of Broad. There are certain books that I will not read, no matter how highly recommended, because I know I can't handle them. I should have known that this would be one of those books. All of Pat Conroy's characters are hurt and broken -- The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini. I had fair warning. In the beginning of South of Broad, there are implications, and I couldn't help but take note of them. I feared that Conroy was going to come back around and tie up a loose end, but I became so invested in the rest of the story and the characters, that I had somehow forced myself to forget, or hoped that he was just going to allow the readers to assume the worst. Looking back, I knew Conroy couldn't leave this implication dangling in the wind. He is too thorough, too precise, and his characters are always fully developed, I knew he had to tell us the whole story, and he had to break our hearts to do it.

I have always said that if a novel can make you feel something - anger, hate, love, fear - it is a success. Pat Conroy conjured up all of these emotions for me with South of Broad. He is my favorite author for a reason. I can still remember where I was sitting - and where my tissues landed - when I read The Water is Wide. All of his books stay with me, and South of Broad will too.

Many thanks to Nan Talese -- Bravo!
Date of Release: August 11, 2009

Book Extras:
Pat Conroy - website
Pat Conroy - Facebook
Nan A. Talese - website
South of Broad page at Random House - read excerpts, Reader's Guide, and more

Now in Paperback! (May 2010)


Melissa said...

I've been waiting for this book to come out.

Great review!

Alison said...

Thanks, after 14 years I was unsure we were ever going to get another great Pat Conroy novel. We got it. Some parts were tough to read, though, REALLY tough.

Anonymous said...

Just thought you might like to know, there's a duplicate review of "South of Broad," on the site under the name Brandon Gaines, as of now the most recent reader review." I have no idea if you're the same person, but if you aren't, you might want to investigate further.

Alison said...

Wow. Those are my words, but I most certainly am not Brandon Gaines. Thanks for the tip, I really appreciate the heads up.

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