In the past several months, I’ve noticed a certain trend happening in my everythinginbetween email in-box. I’ve received…what is the right word…a flood? A spate? A rash? of requests for me to review authors, books on my blog. I find this startling because I am not, particularly, a book blogger, although a number of blogs on my blogroll happen to be. But I also have blogs about recipes, blogs about theater, blogs about chronic illness and no one is asking me to review recipes or plays or X-rays. Certainly I have reviewed books here but I wouldn’t say it’s my raison d’etre or anything. To a cliched T I turn these requests down because, well, what if I don’t like the author’s book? I have no desire to pen a negative review on this blog unless I find myself particularly moved to do so…it isn’t because I am nice – rather, it is because I simply don’t think this is the proper space or place to do so.I by no means review every book I read, even truly wonderful ones.
But before I even read the first page of Pat Conroy’s latest novel, South of Broad, I knew I would review it, good or bad, on this blog. I’ve talked about him too much, hero-worshipped him from afar, discussed how Beach Music was one of those transformative reads for me, and I felt, I guess, obligated to at least mention my thoughts here.
I didn’t read any reviews of South of Broad until after I finished the last page. At that point I spent some time mulling the novel over and then turned to my ever-faithful google search to ascertain what the professionals were thinking. The majority of both reader and critic review seemed to be in agreement: Pat Conroy’s latest novel was (a.) resplendent in his descriptions of Charleston – Conroy’s writing can transcend mere mortals, and (b.) compulsively trashy, a page-turner not because of the quality of the plot but because of the train wreck of the characters’ lives and actions, and (c.) ridiculous in the way it demands readers to not just suspend their disbelief but put it down the garbage disposal and grind it up and (d.) an enjoyable disappointment.
My thoughts? South of Broad is compulsively trashy, a page-turner not because of the quaity of plot but because of the train wreck of the characters, ridiculous in its demands of my ability to stretch my imagination, an enjoyable disappointment. In recommending Conroy’s work to others, I will always point them to Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline or Beach Music before South of Broad. Quite frankly, by the time I reached the last part of the book, when Hurricane Hugo thunders wrecking his well-known havoc on Charleston, I actually rolled my eyes and wondered if I was up to finishing. Yes, people, I rolled my eyes. At Pat Conroy. My beloved.
In past novels, Conroy has certainly relied on dramatic events to fuel his work – in Beach Music there is Shyla’s suicide, Jack’s mother’s leukemia, the entirety of the Holocaust, a drunken father, an insane brother; in The Prince of Tides there is the narrator’s sister’s suicide attempt and a history filled with verbal and physical abuse, up to and including rape. But I think what made those books work in a way that this one didn’t is that Conroy was willing to take his time exploring the various facets of each and every single thing he wrote about, and so it was never just suicide for the sake, well, of moving the story forward.
In his current novel, we have a suicide, a rape, a psychotic killer on the loose, a school district newly integrated, football championships, the ravages of the AIDS epidemic, a viscious murder, incredible acts of heroism, not one but two characters who are obviously supposed to bring to mind Jesus Christ (there is even a scene in which the narrator washes a curmudgeon’s feet) and, oh, did I mention the hurricane? As much as I hate to admit it I did find it all a bit too much for me, and I am not even going into the women who mysteriously appear in Leo Bloom’s, the narrator, bedroom to sleep with him when he is apparently incapable of a normal relationship otherwise..
With all of that said…do you know why, even with this novel, I love the world Conroy creates? Because I do. I love his world. I love his world because of its inherent fucked-upedness. In Conroy’s world, mothers are manipulative, sometimes cruelly and sometimes not, and fathers fail despite their best intentions, and first marriages are always damaged while second marriages are always redemptive, and, quite frankly, some people just don’t survive. Their are illnesses, some mental, some physical, but illnesses are honored instead of swept under the rug. Friendships are often fractured but generally redeemed, and love – for home, for family, for friends, for God – love manages redeem even the worst situations. People take care of one another, and more often than not wayward souls return home because home, whether its the the slow-moving tides of South Carolina or the overwhelming streets of Rome, has the power to heal even the most broken-hearted.
If nothing else, South of Broad will make you want to pack your bags and move to Charleston immediately. And, it’s not a bad book at all. Parts of it are excellent. I hope I’m as lucky to have someone say that about something I write, someday.
P.S. – I purposefully didn’t pull any text from the book to support my review – I want to encourage anyone interested to read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
P.P.S. – I am reading The Time Traveler’s Wife right now. I am sorry, but so far it makes absolutely no sense. That hasn’t prevented me from reading late into each evening this week, though.
P.P.P.S. – Go Steelers!