First Line: It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River.
It is said that Pat Conroy has a remarkable command of the language of the heart. For me over the years, this has been very true. Where some may see sentimentality, melodrama, and florid prose, I have always seen the mists of memory and the abiding power of friendship to transform and to strengthen. Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.
When I learned that, at long last, a new Conroy novel was about to be published, I was happy. When I discovered that the title of the novel was South of Broad I think my smile stretched from ear to ear. To me, "south of Broad" can only mean Charleston, South Carolina, and it is in the beautiful city of Charleston that Conroy places his disparate band of friends.
In 1969, Leo "Toad" King was about to embark on his final year of high school. It's never been particularly easy for Toad. When he was a child, he found the body of his beloved older brother Steve in a blood-filled bathtub-- a suicide. No one knew what on earth could've made this golden teenager take his own life, and in his horror and denial Leo rapidly became a misfit. It is remarkable that, in this final year of high school, he is able to become a part of a very interesting mix of friends: Ike Jefferson, the son of the first black high school football coach in Charleston; two orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead; Molly, Chad and Fraser, members of Charleston aristocracy; and the twins Sheba and Trevor Poe who, along with their alcoholic mother, are on the run from their psychotic father.
The story alternates between these friends' senior year in 1969 and 1989 when Sheba-- now a Hollywood star-- comes back to Charleston to ask her friends to help her find her HIV-positive brother in AIDS ravaged San Francisco. Conroy touches upon some major themes in South of Broad: racism, homosexuality, classism, and religion. Most of all the book is a love letter to Charleston and to the power of friendship.
Leo usually speaks in rather awed tones of his friends. No matter how old he becomes, he will always be "Toad", always the misfit, always the one who doesn't quite measure up to the glamor, style and success of his friends, no matter how nice he genuinely is or how hard he tries. He speaks to all those who have ever felt themselves to be outsiders.
If there is any part of this novel that I had a problem with, it was the plot element concerning Sheba and Trevor's psychotic father. This character was a one-dimensional bogey man that I had a difficult time believing. For the most part, I was carried away on the tide of Leo's memories and of my own of a magical day I spent wandering the streets of Charleston four months before Hurricane Hugo hit. Conroy made me remember a very special city, and he made me remember and give thanks that there are people in the world who truly know how to be friends.
I seldom write reviews but feel the need to write one for his book. This is a wonderfully written story that takes you to the happy yet sad days of high school. When you are feeling comfortable with this well written story it plunges you into horrific situations beyond the control of any of the characters. I'd say it was a beautiful book about terrible things and about the wonder of friendships. It is sunshine and the darkest of nights. It will make you cry and make you shout with triumph. Pat Conroy is a master of his craft and this book did not disappoint in any way.
Pat Conroy has written another hit. This one is a based in Charleston, South Carolina and is a story of unlikely friendships that start in High School and last a lifetime. Leo King is eight years old when he finds his ten year old brother who has committed suicide. This tragedy colors the rest of his life and brings him to gather a motley crew of friends his senior year in high school. This group of friends stays together over a lifetime and can always count on each other.
Leos mother never liked him because he was not his beautiful brother Steve. She was always telling him how ugly, stupid, and crazy he was. I could relate to Leo so much. I had the very same mother! Leo grew up in the south during integration just as I did and was just one year younger than me. We had the same experiences with our high schools being integrated, the fear, anger, hatred and finally acceptance.
Twenty years later, the group is pulled into a mystery when Sheba, now a movie star, asks for their help in finding her twin brother Trevor. Although Pat Conroy is wonderful at building characters, describing the location and making you feel a real part of the story, he is not really into keeping us on the edge of our seat in the mystery department. It was pretty easy to figure out everything long before the answer was revealed but it did not take anything away from the story at all because his skills at writing a believable story are amazing.
Being a southerner myself and very familiar with Charleston, I could see each street and house and walled garden as it was being described. I have also spent many days in San Francisco so I could picture the rundown neighborhoods and the mansion on the coast. And for those of you not familiar with these locations, Mr. Conroy has masterfully painted a magical picture for you to treasure.
I could not put this book down once I picked it up and as soon as I finish passing it around to all my friends, I plan on reading it again.
As a long-time Conroy fan, I can't give this book anything less than four stars for the exquisite prose; however, I felt that the characters and situations were contrived. It was as if he had listed the worst things that can possibly happen to people (specifically children) and built a plot around them. The Great Santini remains my favorite Conroy book with its poignant autobiographical scenes. After waiting so long for this novel, I had hoped for more substance, but it is a well-written tribute to his love of Charleston, and his writing is breath-taking.
No one can write prose describing Charleston and the South quite like Pat Conroy and he does it again in South of Broad. I didn't think the story had quite the strength of Prince of Tides and sometimes got the names confused as two of his female characters had similar names. However, the sheer joy of reading his prose made it worth the read and we'll eagerly await his next novel.