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Book Review: South of Broad by Pat Conroy (5/5)

23 Jan

I don’t know why I thought this book would be boring. All I knew was that it was about Charleston, SC. I have a cousin who loves living there but for some reason, that told me it would be boring. This book was awesome. It had love and death and racial tension and homophobia and murder and stardom and a bunch more. I loved it all the way through. I can’t wait to discuss it with my book club next week.

Cover image via Goodreads

Cover image via Goodreads

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Summary from Goodreads:

Against the sumptuous backdrop of Charleston, South Carolina, South of Broad gathers a unique cast of sinners and saints. Leopold Bloom King, our narrator, is the son of an amiable, loving father who teaches science at the local high school. His mother, an ex-nun, is the high school principal and a well-known Joyce scholar. After Leo’s older brother commits suicide at the age of thirteen, the family struggles with the shattering effects of his death, and Leo, lonely and isolated, searches for something to sustain him. Eventually, he finds his answer when he becomes part of a tightly knit group of high school seniors that includes friends Sheba and Trevor Poe, glamorous twins with an alcoholic mother and a prison-escapee father; hardscrabble mountain runaways Niles and Starla Whitehead; socialite Molly Huger and her boyfriend, Chadworth Rutledge X; and an ever-widening circle whose liaisons will ripple across two decades- from 1960s counterculture through the dawn of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The ties among them endure for years, surviving marriages happy and troubled, unrequited loves and unspoken longings, hard-won successes and devastating breakdowns, and Charleston’s dark legacy of racism and class divisions. But the final test of friendship that brings them to San Francisco is something no one is prepared for.

I loved these characters. Sheba, Trevor, and Niles stood out the most to me and I thought they were great. Sheba and Trevor were so strong because of what they’d been through as children and I think that made them so likable. I liked that the AIDS epidemic was a big part of this book and I liked that though racial integration was a big part of this book, we were told the story through the eyes of someone who already believed in equality. Others had to be convinced, but Leo and the other Kings were already on board. The secondary characters in this book were great, too. Mrs. King was very memorable as was Wormey. I’ve never been to Charleston but Conroy had a way of making it come alive that I admired. The setting was truly a character in this book.

Trevor and Sheba were a bit over the top, but that was part of their charm. I thought everyone else was very grounded in reality, especially Ike and Chad. Chad was the deplorable person we all needed to hate with so many lovable characters in this story. Without a person to dislike, I might have disliked Fraser for no other reason that she was a bit annoying. Leo was a good narrator and I liked that he had his own story in addition to the main action. His relationship with Starla was sad but also pivotal to the story. His mother’s travels from the convent were a great background and gave a reason the King family was so rooted in Catholicism. All in all, the characters made this story.

If I have to pick a favorite, it was Trevor. He had to face a lot of criticism because of his sexuality and he always did it with a smile on his face and a sarcastic comment ready. He was unafraid of who he was and was so much like his sister that I think it hurt doubly when Sheba died because the twins were broken apart. I adored how much he loved life and every second of it that he was free. I hoped he’d find a million perfect moments.

There were parts of each character that were relatable. I related to Fraser feeling she had to explain her childhood, Niles feeling he was never good enough, Molly feeling she’d made a mistake, and Leo feeling he had to take care of all of his friends all of the time. I think having so many characters helped Conroy give someone for every reader to latch onto.

Pat Conroy Image via USA Today

Pat Conroy
Image via USA Today

I liked the part of the book in San Francisco. Seeing the friends taken out of Charleston solidified for me how united and strong they were. It wasn’t proximity that joined them but a true and deep love for one another. What they did for Trevor was commendable. The financial commitment and the way they threw themselves in harm’s way for a friend was truly heartbreaking and were a joy to read.

Hugo was my least favorite part. I understand that it was the destruction and rebirth of Charleston who, as I said, was almost a character in this book. I also understand it was the ending of one of the most menacing subplots. And I understand that it was probably historically accurate. But to be honest, it didn’t develop any of the characters in a way I found meaningful. It seemed to me that Hugo was something Conroy lived through and he wanted to put his experiences into the book and there wasn’t an editor brave enough to tell him to cut it.

I was jealous of the friendships between the characters and I felt that was the purpose of this book, but explore friendships. This isn’t the first book I’ve read about how wonderful friends can be even when a family can betray. These characters were so lucky to have each other. Without Ike and Niles, Leo would have a missing wife and a reclusive mother. Without Leo, Sheba would have an alcoholic mother, murderous father, and missing brother. These characters found what was missing from their relationships with each other and it was really beautiful.

Writer’s Takeaway: Conroy’s personification of Charleston was most impressive to me. As someone writing a historical novel, I want my setting to come alive and for people to feel like they are in 1929 Chicago. The way Conroy did this with South Carolina was something to envy and emulate if possible. I felt like I could get around the city without a map after reading this.

This was a great book and it really took me by surprise in a good way. A full Five out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1980-1999 time period for my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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“South of Broad,” by Pat Conroy | Sense and Nonsense