by Pat Conroy
Nan. A Talese, 2009
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.
The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, and Charleston's dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for. South of Broad is Pat Conroy at his finest; a long-awaited work from a great American writer whose passion for life and language knows no bounds.
Exciting, exhilarating ... exhausting!
It's taken 14 years, but Pat Conroy has created another southern masterpiece. South of Broad, set mostly in Charleston, features the grand themes of religion, class, race and the bonds of family/friendship, but it it also includes just about every social issue I can think of - integration, suicide, mental illness, AIDS, abuse, poverty... Throw in team sports, military education, an affair or two, and a natural disaster (Hurricane Hugo), and you begin to get an idea of it's scope. There is seriously enough material here for three novels. By the end of the book, I felt like I'd been through an emotional wringer... and I loved every page of it!
South of Broad's plot will keep you turning pages into the wee hours and the characters will linger in your mind long after you've finished the last chapter. Of course, you'll find Conroy's signature lush, lyrical prose, too.
At first we fished wordlessly and let the primal silence of the river translate us into no more than drifting shapes. The tide was a poem that only time could create, and I watched it stream and brim and make it's steady dash homeward, to the ocean. The sun was sinking fast, and a laundry line full of cirrus clouds stretched along the western sky like boats of white linen, then surrendered to a shiver of gold that haloed my father's head. The river held the gold shine for a brief minute, then went dark as the moon rose up behind us. In silence, we fished as father and son, each watching his line. (page 80)
A few words on Pat Conroy
Before reading my first Pat Conroy novel, "author" and "fan" were words I'd never considered using in the same sentence. I was an avid reader, had several favorite authors, but "fan" didn't exactly describe the relationship. The word seemed more appropriate to use with a band, singer, team, maybe even an athlete... not an author. In 1986, The Prince of Tides changed all that. By the time I read Beach Music in 1995, "groupie" might have even seemed fitting.
In 1996, my mother and I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Conroy speak during The Rosamond Gifford Lecture Series second season. We were positively entranced! The entire audience was under a spell. Quite a few lecturers have come and gone since then (I'm even a season ticket holder now), but that evening remains one of the most memorable.
Pat Conroy's novels also inspired my own visit to Charleston. In the late 1990's, when the girls were young and my parents agreed to a long weekend of babysitting, I surprised my husband with a "mystery trip" for Valentine's Day. Charleston, and the Charleston Place Hotel, was our destination. The city was all I'd hoped for and, after reading the novels, it almost felt like visiting an old friend.
Be sure to visit Pat Conroy's website for further information.
South Of Broad will be released in paperback on May 4. The publisher has generously offered a copy to one of my readers. If you're interested, let me know in the comments. Please include your email address. I'll draw a winner on May 6. The publisher will ship the book - open to residents of the US and Canada only.