Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Prince of Tides

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy tells the story of a disfunctional Southern family through the eyes and anecdotes of Tom Wingo, the family's younger son. As Tolstoy famously quipped, happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Wingos are no exception, and The Prince of Tides explores the root of the curse on the house of Wingo.

The novel opens with Tom being called to New York City to help his famous twin sister's psychiatrist understand the reasons for her latest suicide attempt. Through a series of flashbacks beginning when he was six, Tom tells of growing up with his sister Savannah, older brother Luke, violently abusive father and manipulative mother. Conroy's storytelling is imaginative and interesting and his characters are vivid. The plot winds from a car trip to Miami to free a porpoise from an aquarium, to Tom and Luke's glory days as football co-captains, to class conflict between the Wingos and the town's selective Colleton League. There are miscarriages and spouse abandonment and a Bengal tiger named Caesar; shrimpers, fishermen and a brutal rapist and murderer who fixates on the kids' mother.

In the current time, Tom tries to piece together the last three years of Savannah's life while living in her apartment, reading the books in her extensive library and speaking almost daily with her therapist. The aftermath of an explosive childhood has manifested itself differently in each of family member. Tom has become a bastion of Southern middle class mediocrity: he's an ex-high school teacher and football coach, his marriage is on the rocks, he drinks too much. Savannah became a world class poet and a suicidal psychotic. Luke is dead, their mother is remarried to a colossal jerk and their father is in jail. By working to get to the bottom of Savannah's troubles, Tom begins to come to terms with his own.

If creative storytelling is Conroy's strength, his weakness is in his style. I've seen Conroy's prose described as poetic; I find it wordy and unnecessarily complicated. He uses an obtuse metaphor when a straightforward description would be better. It is a very enjoyable read, with a powerful story and memorable characters, but Conroy is not a top-caliber writer and he could have used a strong editor.

Up next: Another story from the American South, The Reivers by William Faulkner.

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