My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I have enjoyed some of Conroy's previous novels (The Prince of Tides and Beach Music), so I was looking forward to reading South of Broad. Conroy can tell a sweeping saga and draw the reader in, and this story was no different from his other books.
It's the story of Leopold King (known as "the toad" by his friends--isn't that kind of them?), who finds his 9-year-old brother dead in the bathtub when he is only 8 years old. This tragedy shapes his life from then on. One day in late summer, right before he is to start his senior year in high school, he discovers that his ultra-serious and severe school principal/Joyce scholar mother used to be a nun. He also meets a motley crew of friends, including Charleston snobs Molly, Chad, and Fraser; mountain hillbillies Niles and Starla (yes, a novel with both of the names Niles and Fraser!); tragic figures Trevor and Sheba Poe; and African-American heroes Ike and Betty (who integrate the high school all too easily).
Where do I start with what was wrong with this novel? First of all, the writing--terribly overwritten. I didn't find the characters to be believable at all, and furthermore I couldn't understand their attraction to each other. In spite of the length of the novel, some of the characters fell flat because we don't really get to know them very well. Others are too purely evil or malicious. Some of them I flat out did not like and could not understand what anyone else saw in them (i.e., Chad). Conroy has several of this group of friends marry each other, but I wasn't convinced that most of them really loved each other (with the exception of Ike and Betty). Potentially difficult situations were glossed over (such as the integration of the South Carolina high school and the toxic racism of the late 1960s).
Conroy seemed to pull in every possible salacious and shocking plot element he could think of. Some reviewers have commented that it was a much lower-quality repeat of the Prince of Tides.
In addition, I found a number of editorial errors, one of them a quite surprising timing mistake in the first chapter (first it's 3:00 p.m. in one chapter, and then it's lunch time during the next chapter...on the same day). The book needed an editor with a heavier hand...especially to fix a lot of the unbelievable dialogue...not to mention the lack of chemistry between the characters. (For God's sake, why on earth did Molly stay with Chad??? At one point, she is furious when he discovers he's having another affair...and then suddenly she doesn't care any more??? Really? And why did Leo stay with Starla?)
However, I agree with writer Chris Bohjalian's review in the Washington Post:
"I should note that even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy's heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish. Conroy is an immensely gifted stylist, and there are passages in the novel that are lush and beautiful and precise. No one can describe a tide or a sunset with his lyricism and exactitude."Conroy makes the city of Charleston come to life, and he describes the terror of experiencing a hurricane. At times, he gets close to describing what it's like to have friends for life. Too bad I didn't like or believe in half of the characters.
I expected so much more from a talented author. Let's hope the next one will be better.