Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy


PAT CONROY has created a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama. Spanning forty years, this is the story of turbulent Tom Wingo, his gifted and troubled twin sister Savannah, and their struggle to triumph over the dark and tragic legacy of the extraordinary family into which they were born.

Filled with the vanishing beauty of the South Carolina low country as well as the dusty glitter of New York City, The Prince of Tides is PAT CONROY at his very best.

 “Man wonders but God decides
When to kill the Prince of Tides.”

The south holds its share of stories and secrets. Prince of Tides is as much about those secrets as it is about the cultural cut off and mental lines dividing the city-life in the north from the small town mentality in certain areas of the south.

The movie encouraged me to seek out the written version, but above that, I’ve always heard good things about it. My enthusiasm was further bolstered because it got a minimum of six recommendations in Nancy Pearl’s ‘Book Lust,’ a guidebook which lists hundreds of books under of a smorgasbord of varied categories. Only two books are mentioned more than once out of the hundreds, this one being one of the rarities. It took that as a good sign.

It’s like reading a fictional memoir, told through the introspective
first-person POV of the main character Tom. Scattered memories, important life events, constant inner reflections. He’s a married adult with a few girls for children, a suicidal sister he hasn’t seen in years, a mother he has issues with, a failed football coaching career, and a dead brother, he admits freely that his life isn’t going anywhere soon and that he’s stuck. Not just by life’s unfortunate circumstances, but by his own lacking motivations.

Tom, the tragic yet simpatico hero, is a worthy head to be in. Although at times his almost continuous verbal self-pity grates, his humor and oddness wins him points. Lowenstein is weaker. Her lack of realism may seem stem from inconsistent personality. Their relationship, instead of seeming like ‘a match made in heaven’, seems to result more from ‘right time, right place.’ They’re both needy when they begin trekking down past roads.

The mother is wonderfully written, downright fascinating, and is the rock which supports much of the story’s movement.

Conroy pens beautiful passages and poetic descriptions. He has a knack for capturing the atmosphere of the deep south. He works hard – and successfully – at stringing together a troubled family unit. His dialogue, especially when delivering humor, is spot on, yet he harms his writing with the awkward, distracting overuse of names in almost every conversation. Strange as this is usually a writing crime only committed in romance.

Pacing is slow as it reveals bits at a time and voyages between the present day and the past life. Some of the backstories were riveting, while others I held little interest in. There is a strong cut class issue in the family tales as they were in the poorer part of the community.

Conroy illustrates strength of survival with the family, but in a different way for each person. The mother stands as a strong, determined woman who rises above her station in life no matter who or what she sacrifices. Her ability to shrug off people, even her own children, to drive herself ahead shows how little of herself has remained or even ever existed. Perhaps that absence of self is what makes her get so far ahead, but that strength may be more of a weakness since she is missing so many pieces it’s depressing.

Savannah could come across as a weaker character, yet she attempts to rise above her struggles by being the only one to escape the town, the state, to become a writer who medicates herself with words. Her brain works against her with its protective ability to forget. Luke the brother is one of the best characters in the book, born with a simple but iron-clad inner strength, holding strong convictions he’s willing to die for. Tom is the one left, that dependable shoulder to lean on.

Overall it’s a haunting story and in no way celebrates the bonding and sweetness of family. There is a unifying innocence among the siblings as they cling to each other to make it through, but in the end the bond is rather frail. With Tom a little too angst filled some of the time, some awkward dialogue here and there, and dragging the story on a bit too long, I’ve settled for a four rating. It’s not a book that’s perfect, and I think the movie did some of it better (not often to say that!), but it's completely worth a read.

   Book Quotes:

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that's because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little fucked up.” - Luke

 “There is such a thing as too much beauty in a woman and it is often a burden as crippling as homeliness and far more dangerous. It takes much luck and integrity to survive the gift of perfect beauty, and its impermanence is its most cunning betrayal.” - Tom

“She was one of those Southerners who knew from an early age that the South could never be more for them than a fragrant prison, administered by a collective of loving but treacherous relatives.”  - Tom

   Movie Trailer:

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