South of Broad (2009) was my first taste of Pat Conroy, the author of The Great Santini (1976) and The Prince of Tides (1986)–neither of which I’ve read, but both of which are familiar titles because both were made into popular movies.
What I appreciate most about South of Broad is the book’s organization. The Prologue makes it clear that the book’s setting, Charleston, South Carolina, is no less important than the main characters. It is as much as a story about the evolution of the city between 1969 to 1990 as it is of the lives of its residents.
South of Broad is told in first person by Leo (Leopold) King, the son of a high school physics teacher and the school’s principle–a former nun. The story begins with a retrospective section which takes place in the summer of 1969 with the coming together of seven key players–Leo, two sets of brothers and sisters, and two scions from Charleston high society (i.e., south of Broad St.) all about to begin their final year of high school. The middle sections jump into the present–20 years later. The fourth section goes back to that senior year and the last section comes back to the present (1989-90).
At the first break, the reader wants to know what happened during that senior year. Then, just when the drama of the middle sections makes you forget he didn’t tell us that story, Conroy takes us back to 1969. Then, just when you think the story is over and Conroy has wrapped things up, he reveals a piece of information which turns on the proverbial light bulb in one’s mind. “Aha,” you say to yourself. “Now why didn’t I figure that out.” Brilliant.
Conroy’s descriptions bring Charleston and its characters alive. While some might argue that real people don’t talk quite as honestly to each other as Conroy’s characters do, the dialogue reveals each person’s personality and point of view–the brilliant gay Trevor and his always on-stage actress sister Sheba, the aristocratic Chad and Molly, the southern belle, the hill-billy brother and sister, Niles and Starla, and finally Leo, the self-described late bloomer who shows more compassion and kindness to each and all than 99.99% of the rest of mankind.
South of Broad has it all––villains and mystery, religion and social upheaval, real historical events (hurricane Hugo), high school football, romance and sex, literature (Joyce and Shakespeare), etc., etc. At the end you feel enriched for having known these people and this place in that time. What more can one ask of a writer?