Tuesday, April 12, 2011

South of Broad

We had a wonderful group today to talk about Pat Conroy's latest book. We universally agreed that Prince of Tides, it is not. Mary broke the ice by asking if she was the only one who hadn't loved the book. She said she would never have read past page 40, were it not for book club, and we all said that we have all finished books for exactly the same reason. It was a very good question, nevertheless. Did we love the book?

I think we agreed that we found it an easy book to blow through, and like Cheryl said, that might have been in part because we've had a long series of dark difficult books. Luci and Maureen, who have lived in the South, completely enjoyed the book, and I think to a person we all wanted to visit Leo's Charleston. We felt Conroy's love of the South was probably the most genuine tone of the book. We were critical of elements we found stereotypical, and we also were critical of the themes that always seem to be present in a Conroy novel: suicide, the Catholic Church, marital infidelity, homosexuality, detached parents, and on. This was the first for a loving father, however. I questioned if that relationship were genuine, and Luci assured me by example that it is.

Nun/Mom Lindsey seemed unable to love Leo like her lost beloved Steve (I just realized that nun and mom are palindromes) and we felt she probably should have remained a nun. Joanne asked if it bothered anyone that Lindsey spontaneously decided to leave her order with one day's notice after reading Jasper's letters following eleven years of dedicated service. (It bothered me, for one.) All of us struggled with Lindsey. Mary was very frustrated by her hateful treatment of Sheba. The day she assigned Leo to bake cookies for the twins, greet the orphans and then report for basketball practice to the new Black coach - we talked a lot about it and were left shaking our heads - why that should have been normal to either one of them.

Perhaps the most emotional discussion was of Trevor and his highly sexualized behavior at such a young age, which only became more so with time. The question was - was Conroy's Trevor stereotypical gay? Kathy felt not so, because her gay employees were model citizens at work and talked like Trevor to each other at the parties she was invited to. Cheryl presented an emotional other side of gay San Francisco in 1985, the time of Trevor's decline. The AIDS epidemic was given a name and a face in about 1982. Many of these young men who had openly engaged in the gay lifestyle had no idea of a time-bomb that was ticking. She was working in San Francisco at the time in the theater district and said that the massive loss of life of these creative and brilliant young men was devastating, so much that she and her friends took turns attending funerals because otherwise it was too overwhelming.

We talked about Sheba and Trevor - survivors of an abusive father and both highly sexualized as a result. Where was the mother Kathy asked? Why did she work up the nerve and money to flee and then give up~ And then we started into the inconsistencies we felt the book held. Luci couldn't buy Chad had visited the hospital every day - out of character in her opinion. Mary said she had never read more contrived dialogue and grew to dread quotation marks. We wondered at Conroy's choice to have all dialogue between friends be to insulting and combative. All dialogues between Leon and Mr. Canon were of that nature, and yet Mr. Canon regarded Leo as the son he never had.

And so it went. We didn't like it a lot, yet we mostly agreed it was an easy page turner. (It's so so so different from any Conroy I've read in the past.) It had all the elements from classic Conroys, just not the construction. And did it really need a serial killer? We all complained that he wound up lose ends without really completing them. He conveniently left the killer locked in a shed during a hurricane, Sheba and Shelba are summarily dispatched, and what happened to Evangeline? We quipped that he reached his requisite 500 pages and so wound it down from there.

Mary felt that he had started a novel in the 1980s and just hadn't gotten around to doing anything with it - he hadn't written anything in a while and his publishers were asking, so he dusted off and resurrected his relic. Carolyn had a different take. His current wife is novelist Cassandra King and he has admitted his jealously over hearing her laugh while she writes. Carolyn postulated that he said as much to her and she said, honey, you can do it too. This is the first Conroy that I can remember laughing at - as unbelievable and contrived as all the sarcastic dialogues were, I laughed. Would you recommend it to a friend?