Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours for this review
In June 1969, Leopold Bloom King, the son of a loving, friendly high school math teacher and a strict, former nun mother, who is also the high school principal, suddenly finds himself, for the first time since the suicide of his brother nine years earlier, making friends. New neighbors Sheba and Trevor Poe. Orphans Niles and Starla Whitehead. Ike Jefferson, son of the football coach and one of the first black people Leo has ever really known. Chadworth and Fraser Rutledge and Molly Huger, of the first family of Charleston who end up attending the public high school after an being caught with drugs. Part One of South of Broad recounts how this unlikely group of people became friends and gives a solid background on each of the players.
Jump forward 20 years for Part Two. Sheba, now a major movie star, has made one of her rare returns to Charleston. Those of the group that remain in town throw her a reunion but know that Sheba is there for a reason. It turns out that Trevor, who has all but disappeared in the past few years, has really disappeared now and Sheba is anxious to find him and bring him back to Charleston. Sheba, estranged from Trevor for years, has discovered that he is dying of AIDS and wants him to spend the rest of his life surrounded by friends, friends she would like to have help her find him. So Ike, his wife Betty, Niles, Fraser, Sheba, Molly and Leo head off to San Fransisco, each of them carrying more baggage than just the suitcases they have packed.
Pat Conroy is a master of writing about the American South. Just as in all of his novels, the setting of South of Broad, Charleston, is very much a character in the book. Leo describes Charleston this way:
"I consider it a high privilege to be a native of one of the loveliest American cities, not a high-kicking, glossy, or lipsticked city, not a city with bells on its fingers or brightly painted toenails, but a ruffled, low-slung city, understated and tolerant of nothing mismade or ostenatious. Though Charleston feels a seersuckered, tuxedoed view of itself, it approves of restraint far more than vulgarity."
I love the way Conroy can paint a picture of a place, although it can sometimes get carried away here. Conroy seems to try to pack too much description into much of the book and it can detract from the experience.
Leo, the narrator of the book, is a wonderful character, shaped as much by the suicide of his brother when he was a young boy and his parents' reaction, as much as he is by his parents themselves.
"From the moment I marked the time when the earth opened up to swallow me whole, I left simple grief on the road behind me and held madness at arm's length as it stormed the walls of my boyhood with its timeless regiments coming at the most tender parts of my psyche in wave after unappeasable wave."
"My brother's death had almost killed both my parents, but it did not change my father's fundamental good nature and graceful optimism. He turned his full attention to me and tried to love me harder because I was not Steve. Unlike my mother, who handled his death in the only way she knew how, so I feared that she could never love anyone again who was not Steve."
Leo's mother is a James Joyce scholar and named both of her sons for characters in "Ulysses." It's a cross Leo can hardly stand to bear but a perfect name for him since he is also a character who is traveling. But instead of one day, Leo travels through his own life and the lives of his friends for whom he is the glue that holds them together.
Conroy throws a lot at the wall in this book and most of it sticks. Classism, racism, homosexuality ant the AIDS crisis, incest and child abuse, stalking and murder, love, friendship, religion and family dynamics. Not all of it works but much of it is heartbreaking.
Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book, I didn't feel like Conroy had really captured the voice of an 18-year-old. I know that voice--I have an 18-year-old and Leo often sounds much more like an adult looking back than the kid in the here in now that he was supposed to be. He was also supposed to be a socially awkward kid, one who had had no friends since his brother's death. But suddenly, on the day he meets all of these new people that he will become livelong friends with, he seems to know just the right thing to say.
The friends have a tendency to talk to each other in a teasing way that would be insulting if you said the same things to strangers. Which is all well and good when you are talking about kids. But when we jump forward in time, they are still treating each other the same way--a lot of the time. I think I would have a really hard time being friends with people that talked to me like that so often.
Like so many long books, this one would have benefited from some editing. There might even have been more than one book in these characters' stories. But there are some truly wonderful characters in this book and it was a true pleasure to go on their journey with them.
Overall, I enjoyed watching these characters make their way through life. If your book club is up for a long book, there is a lot to discuss in this one. Talking about the various marriages alone could fill an hour!For more opinions on this book, check out some of the other stops on the tour:
Thursday, April 1st: Jen’s Book Thoughts
Monday, April 5th: Lit and Life
Tuesday, April 6th: Rundpinne
Wednesday, April 7th: Meanderings and Muses
Thursday, April 8th: The Brain Lair
Friday, April 9th: Luxury Reading
Monday, April 12th: Books and Cooks
Wednesday, April 14th: Po(sey) Sessions
Thursday, April 15th: Raging Bibliomania
Monday, April 19th: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, April 20th: Maggie Reads
Wednesday, April 21st: Reading, Writing, and Retirement
Thursday, April 22nd: Stephanie’s Written Word
Friday, April 23rd: Sherri’s Jubilee
Monday, April 26th: The Literate Housewife
Tuesday, April 27th: Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, April 28th: Library Queue
Thursday, April 29th: Lakeside Musing
Friday, April 30th: A Circle of Books