Sunday, July 5, 2009

Beach Music - Pat Conroy

Summary: Jack, a food and travel writer, fled with his toddler daughter, Leah, to Rome in 1982 in the wake of his wife Shyla's suicidal jump from a bridge in Charleston, S.C., and her parents' subsequent lawsuit to deny him custody of Leah. He returns home some years later because his mother is dying of leukemia.
In addition to becoming embroiled in family tension, he begins a slow process of reconciliation with Shyla's parents, who eventually tell him the stories of their respective Holocaust experiences; with his first love, Ledare Ashley, now a scriptwriter employed by their youthful chum, Mike Hess, to write a screenplay of their growing-up years; and with his parents and siblings. He witnesses the return to Waterford of another friend, Jordan Elliot, who has been presumed dead for 18 years after he was accused of murder during a protest against the Vietnam War, and who was betrayed by the fourth member of their boyhood clan, Capers Middleton, who is now running for governor of South Carolina. (excerpt from Publisher's Weekly review on - Picture from )

My review:
This was another of those books my husband kept encouraging me to read, (I initially typed "nagging" but encouraging sounds so much nicer, don't you think?) And just like the last one I gave in to I started this while in the hospital. And just like the last one it was really long. Not entirely pertinent - just mentioning similarities. The difference is that after I slogged through half the book my husband confessed he had only read a third of the book and really just wanted me to enjoy the descriptions of Rome, where the book begins. But by then I'd gotten attached to the characters, and although I was getting irritated by the repetitive introspection of the narrator I would have been unsatisfied if I had not found out what horrible thing had happened in his past.

I started this book without having read a summary or book jacket, or without knowing anything about the author, so it took me some time to realize it was neither a mystery or a love story,as the title would suggest. If it were a movie I guess it would be a drama, so this is the literary equivalent. As I said, the narrative begins in Rome and is not subtle in alluding to just how horrible the main character's childhood in the South during the 50s and 60s was, so much so that it ruined his life and he had to escape with his daughter to Italy. This was repeated ad nauseum.

I. Got. The. Point.

Other common (ie, oft repeated) themes were:

  • How beautiful/sexy yet unique and backwoodsy his mother was, with a bit of neglectful parent thrown in.

  • How he was an imperfect man struggling to raise a daughter after his wife committed suicide - and handling all problems perfectly.

  • On a similar note, how precocious and mature, yet adorable, his daughter was.

  • There was a LOT of schizophrenia for a small town.

  • How the main character was a "low-country" boy with exceptionally refined food tastes and a reverence for beautiful words. Oh, and he "didn't know how to love" but treated the women in his life wonderfully.
With a little editing the book could have had at least 150 fewer pages. I'm not joking. Still, the premise was interesting and, as I said, I liked the characters with their intriguing sub plots and back stories. It was long and effusive, but still a good book.

Am I convincing you? Because I have one more major complaint with the story. It was supposed to be exposing the dirty secret behind the South during the Vietnam War, with the conclusion that the stifling formality of the genteel southern life combined with the divisiveness of the 60s was the worst possible time to be alive. But then the main character retold stories about a Jew who lived through the Bolshevik Revolution (I think), two Jews who lived through WW2 (including the WORST account of the holocaust I've ever read), and his mother, who had the worst possible backwoods/abusive/orphaned childhood ever. And frankly, I didn't feel bad for the rich college kid whose friend betrayed him. I just didn't.

My rating: 3 stars - Regardless of all of these faults, I liked the book. I mean I finished it, which says a lot considering my irritable, postpartum state.

In one Sentence: Coming of age in the South in the 60s sucks, I get it.


Terri Moore said...

I read this book many many years ago and when asked recently to join a book club, I offered up this book to read because it was so good back then. Now I don't have time to read it - what was I thinking!!! I'm not much of a reader but I'm hoping to improve as part of this group. Enjoyed your blog (minus the ads ;-)) and hope to come back again to read other book reviews.

Natalie S said...

I have read this book three times and love it, you are an extremely harsh critic, or maybe it was the time in your life that affected your review. I wish I could find an author that I like as much as Pat Conroy. My parents have crazy families and this book was meaningful to me in that way. I didn't feel that there were too many themes to this book until I started reading reviews and started preparing a discussion for my book club. It is refreshing to have a complex book that doesn't rush through the life of a character, but rather develops them slowly. I am tired of short books that are written more for money than for literature's sake. Read it again, please!

Sweet Em said...

You know, upon re-reading the review it does sound harsh. But hey, I gave it a three. I won't rule out Pat Conroy in the future, but I stand by my critique.

However I think I need to clarify a statement I made - I originally said one Holocaust story was the WORST one I'd read - what I meant was that it told the most horrific stories of a person's experience, not that the story was badly told.

Unknown said...

I have read nearly all the best known novels by Pat Conroy. A long time ago I completed the reading of Beach Music but had forgotten some of the details, and so after stumbling upon a cassette audiobook of this great novel, I purchased it and was delighted I did.

Having been raised within a dysfunctional family, my initial attraction to his writing was just that. It gave me a sense of not having been alone during my rough childhood which I escaped early.

In all of Pat Conroy's writings there is something from his past that he allows to be exposed to the reader, but it is up to the reader to determined what parts are true and what aren't. His book, My Reading Life, will help in that regard.

This book, Beach Music, added to me pieces of my own home library of some 3,000 books. One of my largest book collections is on the Holocaust. From them, I believe I have learned to understand the very difficult lives survivors must endure following their most horrific and unforgettable experiences. Slaughter and massacre were a constant topic for a daughter of two survivors, which was misfortunate, and to some minds, abusive. After all, look where it led.

Sure, the book has quite a few pages, but I think the stories within the story are well worth the time. And the descriptions, the vocabulary, enviable for one like me who longs to increase his vocabulary.

Date experiences described on a college campus that were in opposition to the Vietnam War, as I see it, or very lifelike, believable. A great deal of hatred for that war was displayed during those years by students of many universities in schools of learning.

The funniest moment for me, of course, was the bridge scene. Boy did that and give me a chuckle. I won't ruin it for those who have not yet read the book. Anyway, read it, check it out of the library, purchase it if you are a collector of books, and read it again as I did. It is another of Conroy's masterpieces.


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