Jan 16, 2017

Beach Music

by Pat Conroy

This is rich storytelling, and heavy reading. The novel is narrated by Jack McCall, one of five brothers who is living as an ex-pat in Rome with his daughter, and has vowed to never see his family again, or let them be part of his daughter's life. He is convinced to return by one thing: his mother is dying of cancer. Going back home- to South Carolina- is facing a rocky past. And not just his own past, but that of his parents, and their parents, and his wife's parents, and his childhood friends and so on. It covers so much pain, and so many dysfunctional relationships. Jack has one brother who is mentally ill (his heated parts of conversations stood out to me- the other brothers really blended together I forgot who was who constantly), a drunken father, and a mother who coldly manipulates everyone- or so they all said, frequently proclaiming their hatred for her. I never really got that part, though. Events that happened among friends when they were all students- yeah. Fear and loathing of his father who bullied them- yeah. The bad character of his mother- where were the stories about that?

There's so much going on in here it's hard to keep reading. Family secrets and betrayals. Pogroms in the Ukraine and the horrors of the Holocaust. Student riots during the Vietnam War. An old friend hiding from the law in Rome, in the guise of a priest. Rich cooking- Conroy does like to talk about food, doesn't he? Dirt poor living conditions in an Appalachian valley- I'd never read descriptions of people who worship by handling live poisonous snakes before. Oh, and sea turtles being rescued. By the protagonist's mother. That part really felt unrelated to anything else- was it just to show a sympathetic side to that character... ? Ramblings in the low country, a near-disastrous fishing trip where they encountered a giant manta ray- that part felt really far-fetched. But I have to say, Pat Conroy is a darn good storyteller. For most of the book I rolled with the ebb and flow of shifting storylines, curious to see how each character's past had made them what they were, how it affected and influenced all the others in turn- until I suddenly didn't care anymore, because well, it was just so much to take in and I didn't particularly like any of them.

I almost didn't finish. All this buildup to tell the pivotal, ruinous event that had occurred when the friends were at college, and when I had a hundred pages to go I just didn't want to read more. The political turmoil of the Vietnam War era wore on me. The mock trial staged in a theater where all the characters involved were brought together to air their grievances and explain themselves- felt so overly convenient. In the end, the big reveal didn't seem like a huge deal compared to all the rest of the brutality that happened in the book. I must temper that by saying there is plenty of love in these pages, too- and moments of bravery, unlooked-for compassion, people standing up for what's right, even humor. But I skimmed the last few chapters just because I couldn't bear to call a 700-plus page book abandoned if I lost interest near page 672.

Rating: 3/5            773 pages, 2009

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bermudaonion said...

I love Pat Conroy's work but haven't read this one yet. Sorry you didn't love it.

Jeane said...

I did really like Prince of Tides which I read a long time ago- this one felt more uneven and hard to keep focused on. Read a few other reviews that opined it wasn't his best work, so maybe that's part of it.

Sam Sattler said...

I consider myself a huge fan of Pat Conroy's books, but I agree with you on this one. It was a bit uneven, and by the end, it had become a bit of a chore to keep reading it.