Review: South of Broad

Cover of "South of Broad"

Cover of South of Broad

After I finished The Prince of Tides, I still wasn’t sure whether I was a fan of Conroy’s distinctive, often melodramatic style. So when I saw South of Broad: A Novel mentioned in a few other reviews and articles, I thought I would give it a try and see if it could help swing me one way or the other. I’m glad I did, because South of Broad is a funny, sentimental book that kept me up late at night, wondering how it ended, the kind of book where the characters might not seem like actual people, but you wish they were.

Here’s the plot summary from the Washington Post review:

The tale begins on June 16, 1969, when high school junior Leopold Bloom King is asked by his mother, the school principal, to befriend some students who will be starting there the following September. That day he meets the companions he will take into adulthood: dirt-poor brother and sister orphans, Starla and Niles Whitehead, who are handcuffed to chairs; preternaturally charismatic twins Sheba and Trevor Poe; aristocratic brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge, Carolinians of impeccable breeding; Chad’s equally patrician girlfriend, Molly Huger; and Ike Jefferson, among the first African Americans to be integrated into the public school.

About half of the book also takes place twenty years ahead, in 1989 during a similarly significant and action-packed summer, following the characters as adults who have lost one of their own and set off across the country to bring him back into the fold.

As with Prince of Tides, the book is swamped with dramatic moments, including Hurricane Hugo, and lyrical passages describing the setting, Charleston, which serves as another character in the book and helps Conroy does what it seems to do best, in describing how the South can shape its inhabitants in way that no other region does, making it impossible for them to live without wit, darkness, poetry, melodrama and sweet tea. I’ve never been to Charleston, but following Leo on his paper route, I saw the city the way he did, and it was beautiful. There is suicide here, and horrifyingly graphic abuse of children, but there are also scenes of such evocative power and romance that they will linger with you long after you have forgotten some of the more extravagant plot points.

The richest characters for me were the narrator, Leopold Bloom King, and his parents, a former nun and a high school science teacher, who try to reconstitute their shattered family after the loss of a golden older son. Leo’s father is a wonderful man, generous and loving and faithful, and his mother is a sharp-tongued Ulysses-loving school principal who is painfully aware of her difficulties in loving the son she has left. Some of Leo’s friends are less clearly drawn; the two “rich girls,” Molly and Fraser, never came fully alive for me except when seen in relation to Leo himself, and the two black characters, Ike and Betty, too often lapse into cliche as well. I did love the interweaving of high school football with the earlier decade, and I do think the novel does well in explicitly dealing with class and race, but especially class, and how pervasive class inequities can feel, and how they damage those of us on either side.

All in all, I feel warmer towards Conroy than I did before; the leavening presence of the clever and witty banter between Leo and his friends went a long towards helping me swallow the heavy-handed aspects (did the book really need two terrible villains?). Next, I think I’ll add Beach Music: A Novel to the list, but maybe save it for the summertime.

All in all, I think Conroy’s style is definitely growing on me, with the aspects I love more and more outweighing the weaker spots.

This is also an entry for one of my challenges: challenge 5, “blurb book”. I got interested in Pat Conroy after seeing his blurbs on the books of Anne Rivers Siddons.

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