Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: The Prince of Tides

The Prince of Tides is the second novel I've read by Pat Conroy (the first being Beach Music), and my feelings on his work are complicated. I was originally planning to break my thoughts down into "The Good" vs. "The Bad," but I can't even do that because they're inextricably entwined. So I guess I'll just have to go free-form and do the best I can.

A quote on the back of my copy of the novel says that it is "COMPULSIVELY READABLE" (from no less a source than Glamour magazine, mind you), and I found that to be true...although I couldn't for the life of me provide a credible explanation as to why that was the case. The plot, when stripped to its core, is laughably unbelievable and lame: a South Carolina cracker and an uppity New York psychiatrist, each loathing everything the other stands for, fall in love. There's a whole lot more to the story, but as that's where it begins and ends and everything else seems to exist mainly to set it up, that seems like the main point. I think it would have been a stronger novel if Conroy had excised that portion of it and just told the story of the Wingo family without framing it in the story of Tom and Susan.

One thing you know unequivocally that you're going to get from Conroy is elegant, sumptuous, nearly breathtaking prose. The man has an obvious talent for seeing things in a certain way, and then putting them down in a way you've never thought of before but recognize immediately. He's worth reading for that if nothing else. The words he puts into the mouths of his characters, on the other amazing as his powers of observation seem to be, he has very little feel for the way real people speak to each other. I will say, though, that it wasn't as bad in The Prince of Tides as it was in Beach Music. Which is interesting, since Beach Music came later - you'd think he would have gotten better instead of worse.

Dialogue aside, I didn't find any of the characters in this book likable or even particularly believable. Well, that's not wholly true - I liked the Wingo siblings as kids. As adults, they evolved into nutjobs and douchebags, and I thought there was a real disconnect from their characters as kids and as adults. Even given the things that had happened to them, I just didn't see those kids becoming those adults. For example, Tom, the narrator and main character, seems (sometimes - it's not particularly consistent) to be something of a weak child, but he's a man of action (albeit prickish, sometimes ineffectual action) as an adult. And one recurring theme is how afraid the kids were of their father, but most of the scenes don't indicate fear - the kids seemed almost eager to provoke him, and he's almost a nonentity to his wife, despite how brutal he supposedly is to her. There are some scenes which actually do portray him as abusive, so it's not as though I don't believe that he was...Conroy just didn't make me believe that it really had an effect on the kids, or at least the effect Tom tried so hard to convey that it had.

Even with the problems of dialogue and consistency, Conroy somehow makes the characters interesting, and even manages to hit a few notes of beauty. One thing I think he probably absolutely nailed was the bond between the Wingo kids. I didn't grow up with my own siblings, so I can't speak from personal experience, but their closeness really did ring true to me. It might seem strange after what I've had to say so far, but I do think Conroy has a certain feel for his characters, and how they relate to each other (if not the actual words they would use). I think the problem may lie in the fact that sometimes he needs them to act a certain way in order to advance the plot, and that's not really the way that character would truly act. I don't know about his writing method, so I could easily be wrong about that, but that how it seems to me.

I also had a problem with a couple of plot points that didn't really seem to go anywhere. At one point there's an albino porpoise that their father sells into captivity, and the kids go steal it back, and we never see how their father reacted, if at all. Then there's a big buildup to Tom having dinner with his mother and stepfather, whom he hates, and the identity of the stepfather is supposed to be a surprise (even though it's not). Conroy shows Tom in the restaurant, shaking hands and apologizing to his stepfather, who I'd probably go so far as to call the #2 "villain" in the book, and that's it. I just don't get it.

And that's another thing I just don't like or get about either Conroy book I've read. So much of the book is spent on making these characters out to be responsible for all this harm, and then in the end they're turned into sympathetic characters, forgiven and loved by those they harmed (in this book it's Henry and Lila Wingo and Reese Newbury; in Beach Music it's the McCall parents, plus General Elliot). I have nothing against character redemption - far from it - but I need to see a reason for it. In Conroy's work, I don't. The main characters just put their terrible experiences behind them and everyone lives happily ever after.

So, bottom line: it's highly readable. It's often beautiful. It's definitely interesting. Is it good? Personally, I'd say no. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's bad, but it's flawed. I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it who was inclined to do so, although I'd be very interested to compare notes when they finished. And I know that other reviews are mostly positive, so I'm aware that I'm in the minority here. I'll probably try to check out the movie at some point soon, to see how it compares and if it softens or changes any of my opinions. And I'm sure I'll read more by Conroy before it's all said and done. His prose is worth it, if not the story itself.

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