Pat Conroy’s novel South of Broad is cast in beautiful, intelligent prose. It’s the kind of writing that rends aspiring writers like me flush with envy. After reading only a few pages, I felt nostalgia for a city (Charleston, SC) I have never even visited. Transported beyond the page, I experienced the setting with visceral clarity (from the smell of magnolias to the briny ocean air) and connected with it more than any other character in the novel. Perhaps the book would have worked better as a travel guild than a piece of fiction.
The story follows the interwoven paths of ten lifelong friends. They forge an unlikely fellowship in 1969 the summer before their senior year of high school. Twenty years later, a series of chilling (and implausible) events test the limits of their loyalty.
Unfortunately, neither the plot nor the characters are believable. Back-woods Appalachian orphans speak with the same eloquence as Princeton blue-bloods and high-society debutantes. From diverse and often humble beginnings, these friends grow up to become a who’s-who of Charleston: an Academy Award-winning actress, a nationally renown pianist, the city’s first black police chief, a lawyer, and an infamous journalist. Talk about a group of misfits that beat the odds!
Perhaps I could suspend my disbelief (this is art, after all), but for one unassailable problem: I never bought into the friendship to begin with. The character’s backgrounds are too dissimilar, too entrenched in prejudice for them to unite without a some significant incident, especially in the newly desegregated South.
I actually liked most of the characters. I thought of them when I wasn’t reading and rooted for them as the story progressed. But the lack of verisimilitude undermined my investment.
A land mine of stereotypes mar the common person’s perception of the South (I count myself guilty in this regard). I believe Pat Conroy sought to avoid such generalities and caricatures in South of Broad. But he overshot it. He acknowledged that racism and bigotry existed, but gravely oversimplified the struggle marginalized people faced.
No amount of great prose can make up for that.