It qualifies as being the last one on the bus, but then I never promised CultureGeek reviews would be focused solely on new releases. Far from it; we can learn and enjoy just as much from a 30-year-old novel as from one released yesterday.
So when I tell you that The Prince of Tides is an amazing novel, with the kind of writing that I wish I were capable of producing, it is not hyperbole. It’s a wonderful discovery, just a little late.
I saw the movie back in the 1990s, and was fascinated by some of the best acting that either Barbra Streisand or Nick Nolte had produced. It had a strange juxtaposition of New York introspection and Southern gothic that I had never seen before. And, of course, it had one awful, brutal scene that I never forgot, hand pressed to mouth in horror.
Then friend and fellow author John Hartness posted on Facebook that he thought Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides had writing that made him want to become a writer. It struck me that I had picked up an old mass-market paperback of the book at a used-book sale somewhere and I should give it a shot. So really, this is all John's fault.
My paperback has a horrible cheesy romance-novel cover, and if you know anything about the book or the movie, you know it is not a romance. There is love, and a love story at multiple levels. But it is absolutely not a romance.
It was my mother who taught me the southern way of the spirit in its most delicate and intimate forms. My mother believed in the dreams of flowers and animals. Before we went to bed at night as small children, she would reveal to us in her storytelling voice that salmon dreamed of mountain passes and the brown faces of grizzlies hovering over clear rapids. Copperheads, she would say, dreamed of placing their fangs in the shinbones of hunters. Ospreys slept with their feathered, plummeting dreamselves screaming through deep, slow-motion dives toward herring. There were the brute wings of owls in the nightmares of ermine, the downwind approach of timber wolves in the night stillness of elk.
But we never knew about her dreams, for my mother kept us strangers to her own interior life. We knew that bees dreamed of roses, that roses dreamed of the pale hands of florists, that spiders dreamed of luna moths adhered to silver webs. As her children, we were the trustees of her dazzling evensons of the imagination, but did not know that mothers dreamed.
That’s just part of the first page.
The story itself is southern gothic at its finest, with horrors and ignorance and racism and “bless your heart” backstabbing in between the love of the land and the glories of the life and history. But at its heart, it’s the story of a man who is lost between a troubled childhood, a faltering marriage, a dysfunctional family wracked with mental illness and tragedy, and the awful beauty of loving two women at the same time.
I no longer have time in my crazy schedule to stick with every book I read, now that I am in grad school. Some books I have picked up I hated, and discarded without a second thought. Others I despised but carried through, if only because I hoped the ending would wash away its awfulness. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t. That one is going back in the donation box.) Instead, I find I am seeking out more and more reading to evaluate craft and style and language, perhaps in the hopes of taking my work to the next level.
Conroy’s writing is conversational but also dense with description. He paints pictures with words far more elaborate and beautiful (or awful) than the penny-ante art on the cover of my paperback. You don’t skim it the way you might more conventional genre novels. In part it’s a mystery: what happened to Tom Wingo’s brilliant, troubled sister Samantha, that would spur her to attempt to take her own life? What happened to all of them to tear the family apart so?
There are no villains here - well, almost none. The father looms large as abusive, cruel, ignorant and a force of terror in his children’s lives… and yet it almost redeems him, as a man who loved his family and could not imagine why the world in which he was raised had changed and his tyranny would no longer be absolved.
Tom himself is not always a reliable narrator, telling his family’s story to us and to a New York psychiatrist as separate from his world as she could be - but she has her own sadness, and her own story, even as she enters the world of the Wingo family.
Oddly, once I finished the novel, I felt that the movie did not quite do it justice. The character of Tom’s brother Luke was barely apparent in the movie, which chose to focus far more on the moment of horror and Tom’s romances. Yet he is a driving force in the novel, and Luke’s life story is as much a part of the family’s trauma as that awful night so gruesomely depicted. (Other omissions make more sense. One word: tiger.) The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards; I do not know what (if any) awards the novel won, but it deserved them.
I found it fascinating, even though it was far afield from my usual reading. After all, there are no zombies or ghosts rising from the South Carolina swamp to torment the Wingo family. If there are horrors in The Prince of Tides, they are solely human-made. And sometimes those are the worst of all.