Disclaimer: This is probably the longest book review you will ever read...if you do choose to read it. But if I didn't get these thoughts out of my head as soon as I placed South of Broad back on the bookshelf, they would roll around in there until they dripped out in the shower and I would never get them back.
Growing up as an only child can result in one of several ways...you are withdrawn, shy, and retain an alarming number of imaginary friends...or you can immerse yourself in the lives and loves of school friends...or you cling to the music, authors, and art of your parents' generation. You hold on to these aspects of your childhood because without a sibling to torment, shadow, and adore, you adhere to your parents and everything they bring with them. Unfortunately, Army Dad never really grasped that (despite his numerous attempts at fatherhood, unlike my mom) and saw his role in the family as The Discipline and The Lecturer. While some of his teachings and traits stuck (I am hyper-vigilant while traveling alone or at night, I always prepare for the worst while simultaneously hoping for the best, and I could watch The History Channel for hours), I don't fall back on his music or his books when my ship starts to rock. Instead, I download albums by James Taylor and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I put Our House by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on repeat until the storm subsides. I'm sure these were all part of Dad's collection at some point (probably when he and Mom were still married and she brought with her the art that had fashioned her into the woman she had become), but he is not the one I think of when the music plays. It is Mom and her gardening gloves as she surveys a lonely spot of land...or driving with sunglasses on, sunroof open and Jimmy Buffett enticing us with cheeseburgers and margaritas...or playing Fur Elise on the piano in the dining room of the only house that could both heal us after an emotionless divorce and allow our relationship to almost completely disintegrate. The music and the authors that belong to my mother came to belong to me, as well. And that is how I fell in love with Anne Rivers Siddons and Pat Conroy.
Although I embraced the Sweet Valley twins and Anne of Green Gables as fully as any tween in the early 90's, I was also reading about the tumultuous relationships that adults have and how geography can sometimes play an integral role in all of it...particularly in the south. Outer Banks, a novel about four women who become fast friends after joining a sorority at Randoph-Macon College in the 1960's, has haunted me since I first read it my freshman year in high school. Reading it several more times has done nothing to ease the restlessness I felt after the first read. Even though it has been many years since I've picked up my weathered and abused copy, I still often think about one of Ms. Siddons' unintentional themes...how music in the background of an experience can actually shape the memory of that experience. The soundtrack and library of my childhood were established by my mom. Until I read Outer Banks, I rallied against allowing music to define a period of my life. After, I realized there is really no way around it.
I read Beach Music by Pat Conroy next and found peace and escape in his lengthy descriptions of the south and the tides of the Atlantic Ocean. Together, he and Ms. Siddons replaced my blood with saltwater. Jimmy Buffett then blended it to a perfect, fruity concoction.
While I've read some of Ms. Siddons' later works, most recently Off Season, none of it comes close to invoking a passion for the characters that Outer Banks did. However, Pat Conroy's latest book, South of Broad, not only served as a love letter to the entire city of Charleston and its neighboring islands, it also transported me to a time in American history that I, unfortunately, missed. While some authors tend to draw out their stories, reaching for some set page goal, I absolutely believe Mr. Conroy needed all 512 pages to tell the story of Charleston and her evolution from the segregated and society-obsessed brat she was in the late 1960's to the diverse tourist destination she is today. He, like my parents, witnessed the 60's and 70's firsthand and paints, I think, an accurate portrait (even for a work of fiction) of what the deep south was like during those years. Meld that with the dramatic and tragic arrival of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 1980's and you have the ingredients for an epic story, spanning several decades and encompassing entire lives of the main characters.
It is easy to look at the year 1968 or 1985 or 2010 and see it as a single moment in history, as if it arrived by virgin birth with no history and no future to influence it. But when you read a story, fiction or biographical, that spreads across 4 decades and recounts how events affected those who lived them, it is impossible to ignore that we are all a thread in the quilt of time. Maybe we become the thread spun of gold that illuminates all others around us or maybe we become frayed and tattered. Regardless, we cannot escape our place in the pattern. Our every thought, word, and action will change how the quilt is crafted but we will never see most of those changes. It's a butterfly who changes course in Brazil. It is removed from us, but that doesn't mean that it never happened or had consequences. South of Broad reminds me, in a way that very few books have before, that cause-and-effect is real and occurs every second of every day.
But South of Broad covers many of life's mysterious currents. From integration of the deep south to the harrowing realization that a disease can erase the lives of so many before anyone cares to the breath-taking resilience of the most violated and damaged individuals. To say this is a novel about a group of friends who met in high school, grew up to marry one another and survived Hurricane Hugo (which, as unjust as it may be, is absolutely comparable to Hurricane Katrina to the residents of South Carolina), is a gross oversimplification that should insult Mr. Conroy. Is it a novel worthy of awards and praise? Absolutely. Is it perfect? No. I quickly grew bored of the chapter that gave a play-by-play of high school football games and I was exhausted by the hot and cold relationship between Leo and Molly. But the integrated high school football team and their cheerleaders provided the backdrop for so many of the central relationships to develop, so I will forgive him. And Molly was proof that no matter how strong your love is for someone else, there are areas of the world where society will still dictate your spouse and your course in life.
Mama Virgo read this first and was lukewarm on it in general. The ending she thought was "weird"....which, as lame as it is, was the only way I could describe the ending to Ms. Siddons' Off Season. Weird. I didn't feel the same about South of Broad. I think some who are intrigued by this review will rush out, buy the book, read all 512 pages and think to themselves, "that was the most melodramatic piece of trash I've ever spent my time reading." But I've been on this earth long enough to know that the events in the book could all happen today. In a world where kidnapped children are found living in the backyard of and working for their kidnappers, where a handful of celebrities turn up dead by their own hand each year, where citizens in small towns everywhere find their big break on television reality shows...nothing in South of Broad is impossible...or even improbable. This book covers a society divided by race and class, the emergence of open homosexuality and the hatred that follows, child abuse, murder, acts of God, scandal in the Catholic church, the wrath of Alzheimer's, philandering, disease, and the inhumanity we show to others. It is only the most genius of writers that can make me feel inspired and hopeful after all of that.