Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Company, August 2009
Reviewed by Penne J. Laubenthal
When I read my first Pat Conroy book in the early 70s, it was love at first paragraph. When I finished reading the prologue to South of Broad, I fell in love all over again. Fate, family, friendship, and forgiveness are all themes in the novels of Pat Conroy. From The Great Santini through Beach Music, these familiar strains wind in and out like a musical leit motif. South of Broad is no exception. Here we have all the subjects we have grown to know and love set in the place Conroy loves best----Charleston, South Carolina. The opening line of the prologue reads, "It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River." In the final chapter of the novel, Conroy writes "There is nothing that the Holy City cannot right."
Pat Conroy writes like a gourmand, an epicure, and reading a Conroy novel is like having a ten course meal in the finest restaurant-- never mind that his books are chock full of suicide, depression, alcoholism, and thoroughly seasoned with despair. What is a meal without a little spice or something astringent to stimulate the palate. In the opening chapter of South of Broad, Conroy's protagonist Leopold Bloom King observes that "death lives in each one of us and begins its countdown on our birthdays and makes its rough entrance at the last hour and the perfect time.' The novel ends as it began on Bloomsday (albeit June 16, 1990, rather than 1969), and Leo makes his final comment about how quickly fate can shift the role of ten thousand lives "Fate can catapult them into lives they were never meant to lead until they stumble into that on immortal day."
Conroy's novela, in spite of their preoccupation with the darker side of life, are a "hymn of praise" to life itself, an affirmation of all that is, in spite of everything, good.. After following the peregrinations of Leo Bloom King for over 500 pages and twenty-odd years, the reader should not be surprised to find that South of Broad ends, just as James Joyce's Ulysses does, with that powerful and life-affirming word "Yes."
In South of Broad it is the mother rather than the father who is the cold and distant character. In this Conroy's fifth (or sixth if you count The Water is Wide) novel, Pat Conroy creates for us the father he always wanted but never had. Families are thrust upon us by fate. We cannot chose our mother and father or our sisters and brothers, but we can create them. Pat Conroy has said that one of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family. Conroy based his first novel, The Great Santini, on his own brutish father. “My mother thought of my father as half barbarian and half blunt instrument, and she isolated him from his children.”
Conroy's mother ("I was raised by Scarlett O'Hara") and sister Carol who was treated for severe depression were the inspiration for Conroy's most popular novel, The Prince of Tides. Conroy said in a interview with USA Today that of his six younger brothers and sisters at least five of them had been suicidal at one time or another and the other two just would not admit it. His sister was treated for severe depression and a younger brother committed suicide at the age of 33 in 1994. In Conroy's most recent novel South of Broad, the protagonist Leo is scarred forever when he discovers the body of his golden-haired older brother drained of life in the bathtub---a suicide at the age of 12. For the rest of his life, Leo is driven to make things right in this not-so-right world.
Like James Joyce's Ulysses on which much of South of Broad is modeled, the critical events in Leo's life which will change and influence him forever (with the exception of his brother's suicide) all take place in a single day, Bloomsday, June 16, 1969. Part One opens with the words "Nothing happens by accident" and continues on the next page with "If I had known then what I have come to learn, I would never have baked 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...."
Then unlike Ulysses, South of Broad leaps forward twenty years. What happens in the four subsequent parts (the novel is arranged in five parts) keeps the reader turning pages. Conroy concludes the novel with "...anything can happen furing a Bloomsday Summer. Yes, that is it, anything can happen. Yes."
"Breathtaking, Stunning, Incandescent, astonishing" are only a few of the superlatives reviewers have used to describe Conroy's latest novel. The Bloomsday Summer may be over for now, but South of Broad is the perfect fireside read.