Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: South of Broad

Pat Conroy hasn't published a novel in almost 14 years, but South of Broad was worth waiting for.  Meet Leo "Toad" Bloom, whose mother is his high school principal, and whose father is the high school's physics teacher.  The trio is battling to hold on to a semblance of family following the suicide of Leo's older brother Steve, when Leo was 10 years old.  The story begins in the summer of 1969, as Leo is entering his senior year of high school. 

We meet the group of friends who will influence him well into adulthood: there is Ike Jefferson, son of the first black football coach at the school, his girlfriend Betty; Chad Rutledge and his sister Fraser, Molly Huger - all arch stereotypes of old Charleston society;  Niles and his sister Starla, orphans whom Toad is ordered by his mother to befriend; and there are the twins--the beautiful Sheba, the future Hollywood starlet and Trevor her equally beautiful and homosexual brother whose mother is a raving alcoholic, and whose father is .....well......NO SPOILERS HERE.  Conroy takes each of these and gives us a deeply developed character, relationships that are all too real, and heart-breaking scenes of friendship, denial, betrayal and loyalty.

Leo and the group must cope with mental illness, segregation, integration, AIDS, divorce, alcoholism, Hurricane Hugo, death, betrayal, and forgiveness as they live their lives through the tumultous decades of the 70's, 80's and into the 90's. Like his previous books, Conroy writes of relationships, of the influence of Roman catholicism during this period and on those relationships, and lets those relationships define the story.  At several points, he could have written 'the end' (lesser writers certainly would have) but he is able to climb from one resolution up another peak and then slide down into a whirl of crisis bringing the reader along to a thoroughly unexpected (at least for me) finale.

Over, under and behind it all is the city of Charleston SC with its rivers, its sultry weather, its incredibly snooty old guard, and its antebellum mansions.  Conroy's ability to evoke the essential beauty and ambience of this queen of southern cities is incredible.  I've never lived there, but have visited several times.  Each time I read one of Conroy's novels, it's like being on a trip to the low-country.
It's one of his best, and will be on my 'best of the year' list. Run and get it....or at least put it on your Christmas wishlist.

Thanks to Nan Talese at Doubleday for the ARC and the chance to review this fantastic novel.


  1. Oooh good, I'm glad you liked it and gave it such strong reviews. I, too, have an ARC and was very excited to read it.

    Thanks for your review.

  2. A book with a "thoroughly unexpected finale"...gosh, I might read the book for that. It seems not something many authors can achieve.

    14 years is a long time between books. what was he up to?

  3. caite ....actually he published a cookbook (I'm dying to get it) and another book which I believe is autobiographical called "My Losing Season"--haven't read it yet either.

  4. Tina, I LOVED you review. So glad you liked this as the reviews seem mixed. I'm just copying the audio onto my IPOD as I type...LOL


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