Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: South of Broad

Though we are much alike (I'd like to say in all the best ways), I never thought that my father and I would have the same taste in books. That opinion changed when he passed off a couple of Pat Conroy novels to me at our last family gathering. I'd never read Pat Conroy before, but because of the gentle urging of my father and the promise of sharing in something that he had enjoyed, I decided to open South of Broad and at least read the intro on the plane ride home.

Two pages in, I was immediately hooked. I didn't know where the story was going to take me but I didn't care. Pat Conroy's style of writing is so beautiful, so elegant that I clung to every word. Each sentence in South of Broad is so cleverly crafted and descriptive that I found myself marveling at his writing genius.

South of Broad takes us through the story of Leo King, a charming yet troubled southern boy that has a deep love for his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Because Charleston is one of my favorite places in this world, I enjoyed Conroy's constant praise of the city's magnificent architecture and deep-rooted history. But what I really loved was how different and well-developed he made each of the characters in this novel.

Leo is the ugly younger sibling to a beautiful, smart, kind, and loving brother Steve. When tragedy takes Steve away from the family, Leo and his parents crumble. The loss of Steve weakens the family bond and sends Leo spiraling downward. We meet Leo at the age of 17, just as he is starting to build his life out of the messy hand he was dealt.

As Leo starts to build a life of happiness and normalcy, his stars are crossed with a group of teens his age that are too attempting to start over. He first meets Niles and Starla Whitehead, two orphans from the hills of North Carolina. On their first encounter, Niles and Starla are wearing orange jumpsuits with the word "Orphan" stitched across the back and are both handcuffed to a chair to ward off their attempts of running away. The orphan siblings have had a rough go at life; as they grow we watch how this turns one into a strong, good person and destroys any chance of happiness for the other. After meeting Niles and Starla, Leo is instructed by his parents to greet the new neighbors across the street. Walking up to their house with a plateful of cookies in his hand, Leo is dumbstruck by the beauty of his neighborhood's newest set of twins. Trevor and Sheba Poe are gregarious, dramatic, and painfully attractive. Their beauty is only disrupted by the horrible life that they, too, have led. After living a childhood so corrupt that they constructed an entire life out of make-believe, Sheba and Trevor are imaginative to the likes of nothing Charleston has ever seen before. Their characters take the city, and at times the reader, by surprise often. When Leo leaves the twins he goes on to meet his parents at the club for lunch. Upon arriving to the club Leo sees that his parents are dining with two of Charleston's most aristocratic families. The children of these families, Molly and Chad, have been kicked out of their private schools for being caught with cocaine. They, along with Chad's sister Fraser, must now transfer to Leo's school, of which Leo's mother is the principal. The elite attitude of these teenagers is palpable, and though they grow into likeable characters, their class always comes first. After all of these encounters, Leo goes on to meet Coach Jefferson--his high school's first black coach. Coach Jefferson has recruited Leo to be to co-captain of the football team with his son, Ike. The start of the relationship between white Leo and black Ike in the 1960s is rough. The friendship that evolves between the two men, though, is inspiring and life-long.

Leo is the core that brings all of the aforementioned characters together and the glue that keeps them friends for life. The dynamic of friendship between each character is so singular and intricate that they skirt the line of fiction and fact. Conroy constructs his characters in such a way that I felt as if they could walk out of the pages and be real. And, I wanted them to be. I loved each person in this book so much that I paced myself in reading the 500+ pages so that I could hold on to everyone and their story a little bit longer.

South of Broad is not only a brilliant tale of friendship and love in every form but a strong reflection of human character in tough times. In addition to the regular wear and tear of heart break, the characters of this novel live through the era of the Civil Rights Movement in the south, the AIDS epidemic of the 80s in San Francisco, a devastating hurricane, and the deaths and murder of people close to home. Through it all, though, they had each other, and that's where the beauty lies. In the words of Helen Keller, "alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

When I finished South of Broad, I hugged the book to my chest and expressed silent gratitude to my father for bringing this great story into my life. In mourning the end of my time with these characters, I'll give myself time to reflect on all of the wonderful people in my own story and all of the experiences that we've shared. Once I feel that I've given that sufficient time, I'll move on to the second Conroy novel my father gave me. You better bet that you'll be hearing from me on that one, too.

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