The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

April 5, 2010

prince-of-tides Plot summary (with spoilers): Tom Wingo is an unhappily married, out-of-work high school English teacher/football coach living in his native South Carolina. One day he finds out that wife Sally has been cheating on him — but he can’t deal with that crisis properly because he has to go off to New York City to tend to twin sister Savannah, a successful poet who has once again tried to slit her wrists. Usually after these episodes, Tom is the only one who can comfort Savannah, and since he is still close to her, he doesn’t hesitate for an instant.

This time, Savannah seems more out of it than ever. She keeps mumbling about incoherent things, according to her psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein, and might require an extended stay in an institution. Tom listens to some of the recordings Susan has made of Savannah’s babblings, and realizes that she has been talking of their childhood. An outsider wouldn’t understand the references, surely, but they’re unmistakable to Tom. Lowenstein asks him to stay in New York to help her decipher Savannah’s rants and get to the bottom of her issues. Tom agrees.

From there, Conroy intersperses lengthy flashbacks of Tom, Savannah, and older brother Luke’s childhood in Colleton, South Carolina with current happenings in New York City. Readers learn about abusive father Henry Wingo, who never gave the children the love they yearned for; distant mother Lila, whose greatest ambition was to be accepted by Colleton society despite being a shrimper’s wife; and about various adventures the kids had that shaped them into who they are now. Among the latter are a trip to Miami to kidnap a white porpoise that had been “stolen” from the Colleton community by an aquarium and a brutal home invasion that occurred in broad daylight at the Wingo home.

While all of this is going on, Tom and Susan develop a firm bond and eventually embark on a brief, passionate affair of their own before Tom decides to return to South Carolina to patch things up with Sally and create a better home life for their three daughters.

Liked:

  • I enjoyed the basic framework of the novel, and the idea that getting to the bottom of Savannah’s current problems meant digging up the past. It was interesting that Tom was the vehicle for the reminiscences, though I wonder if Savannah viewed all of the events in the same way.
  • I thought the New York scenes were terrific. I loved Tom and Susan’s relationship (though it took a concerted effort not to let the characters take on Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand’s forms), and thought the novel was at its most powerful when dealing with present-day stuff.
  • I liked how Tom handled Susan’s son Bernard. The scenes of him coaching the boy in football in Central Park were wonderful, and particularly resonated with me (probably because I’m a teacher myself).

Disliked:

  • I know the flashbacks were crucial to the story, but there were far too many of them and they were far too lengthy. I appreciated most of the stuff about Tom, Savannah, and Luke, but could have done without Henry’s war adventures, the grandmother’s worldwide travels, the grandfather’s marches with the cross on Good Friday, etc. All of those extra stories just got to be very boring after a while and made the book so bloated that all I could think about was colon and body cleanser products as I was reading.
  • Some of the stories involving the kids were plain stupid, too. The white porpoise thing was unbelievable from beginning to end, and, again, just dragged on for too long. Luke’s one-man resistance army against the plutonium plant was dull and seemed to come out of nowhere, and Savannah’s “children’s story” almost made me chuck the novel aside for good.
  • Some of the dialogue seemed extremely contrived and out of place. I had a hard time imagining good ol’ southern boy Tom saying some of the things he did (like at Susan and Herbert’s dinner party), and even Luke’s anti-nuke speech was considerably overwrought. I’m not saying that these people were redneck idiots who couldn’t carry on an intelligent conversation, but regular people just don’t talk that way!

Rating:

I read The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy based on a personal recommendation from a dear friend of mine. As a result, I was determined to like the novel and stuck with the thing until the very end. Unfortunately, even my overwhelming desire to please my friend couldn’t make me give this book a good rating. It was too long, too boring, and ultimately, too unbelievable for that. Yes, there were some brilliant parts along the way, but these were too few and far between. I give the book 2 stars out of 5.

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