It's not often that a writer can truly change your life, turn on the lightbulb on your shadow side and yet, this is the role that Pat Conroy's books have had in my life.
The first of his novels I read was 'The Prince of Tides' upon a bookseller's recommendation. I bought it on a Friday night and finished it at 3 in the am on Sunday morning. I couldn't stop reading it, but when I finished, I walked it out to the dumpster and chucked it. It was the first and last time I have done so in my life. Several years later, after my mother died, I started therapy. Judy listened for several sessions and her first real comment was 'Your family reminds me of that one in 'The Prince of Tides''. As hard as it was to believe, I also had to check it out. Sure enough, I found many, many similarities to my family. My mother was the beautiful, redhead Southern belle (although she never remarried after my parents divorced) and my father greatly resembled psychodynamically the father in the book. I was the oldest, though female, I have a sib who is mentally ill and another who bucks the system. I myself have issues with trauma and depression. The same was true of his earlier books; he captured neatly his own hell and that of my family.
Since then I have read everything but 'The Boo', his cookbook and his latest book, "My Reading Life'. His books have validated that it is possible to survive almost anything, although one may be scarred in the process. In many ways his books have validated the strength of the human spirit.
However, they also demonstrate the cost of honesty: his family was torn apart by his book, 'The Great Santini'. His mother's side of the family protested it, he lost contact with his father for many years. It also affected one of his marriages enough that the marriage ended in divorce. 'The Prince of Tides' damaged his relationship with one of his sisters. One also has to suspect the great pain the books cost him when writing them.
In his books before 'South of Broad', one gets the feeling that he will never be able to resolve some of these family issues and that they will forever plague them. Since I identify with the books so much, this has always been hard to note.
However, the tone of 'South of Broad' is very different. He has a loving, gentle father. His mother is not so sexy or as much of a social climber as the mothers in his other books. While terrible things happen, they are things that can happen to any of us (no wild tigers, convict rapists, etc.).
Most importantly, the main character, Leo, is able to appreciate the goodness in his life without the desperation the main characters have done in the past. He can see people as a whole, good or bad, in a more balanced way than previous characters. And finally, he is able to reconcile and forgive with his mother and father.
I hope the tone of 'South of Broad' means that Mr. Conroy has been able to find peace in his life and healing, if not a cure. I hope the scars have faded. I wish him peace.
And I have the same hope for myself.