I’ve sat looking at the title of this blog for the last half an hour or so, wondering if “shape” is the right word to use. I mean, I know what I want to say, but “shape” could be off-putting. But then again, maybe not. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I picked up a book most of the world was unknown to me, apart from whatever my parents and teachers told me. I had to find a lot out by myself. As much as I loved TV shows growing up (I still do: if you look at my Twitter feed, I’m all about Line of Duty these days), when I opened a book and immersed myself in whatever literary world I decided to inhabit at the time, I learned more about human nature and human relationships that anything I heard in a classroom or a church pulpit. The genre didn’t matter; we humans act the same whatever the setting, wherever we find ourselves. So I think it’s right to say that as I grew into my reading, certain books impacted me in ways that still sit with me years and even decades later. Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is one of those books.
Published in 1986, The Prince of Tides is the story of former football player and high-school teacher and coach Tom Wingo. Married with three young daughters, he has a twin sister, Savannah, a poet who lives in New York, who has had mental health issues since she was a child. Another suicide attempt uproots Tom from his home and family in South Carolina to his sister’s side. In doing so, he leaves behind his own mess: his wife Sallie is having an affair, and he’s not surprised by this at all. Clearly a number of things aren’t right with the Wingo family.
Tom meets his sister’s psychiatrist, a beautiful Jewish woman called Susan Lowenstein, and she challenges Tom to fill in the blanks in Savannah’s and his family history. It’s a journey down memory lane that is both traumatising and eventually healing. Along the way Tom and Susan form a relationship that is combatative but respectful. They come from very different backgrounds, financially and culturally, but Susan’s husband is indifferent to her and is also having an affair. So they have a lot in common when it comes to intimate relationships. Tom and Susan have an affair of their own, which changes how each of them views life, love, and family by the end.
I wasn’t familiar with Pat Conroy before I picked up this book in the early 1990s. I knew about the movie version, though, but hadn’t at the time seen it. I may have chosen to read the book because of the movie, being a fan of Barbra Streisand’s film and music career, and also who doesn’t love a bit of Nick Nolte. I followed his career from his Rich Man, Poor Man days. Perhaps I may have picked up The Prince of Tides because of its theme of family relationships and how they can, if they’re not nurtured and allowed to grow, mess up even the most steadfast of people. I confess to not being in the best of places in life when reading this book. Outwardly I might have looked like I was doing okay, but inside I was close to being a mess. I flitted between jobs and missed a couple of really good opportunities to do well in life and personal relationships, but I found myself making one bad decision after another, all of which had my family wondering where the hell my common sense had gone. I was also drinking too much (something Mr Nolte can relate to), and it took me another decade to do something about that.
Pat Conroy’s writing, however, sang to me. I don’t think there’s one author out there whose prose style has touched me in the way Conroy’s did. You would be surprised to know, though, that I never read any of his other books; this despite him being the author of recognised classic American novels like The Great Santini, Beach Music, and The Lords of Discipline. I don’t know why this it. It could be that I’m afraid to read an author who, though he came from a completely different background to me, seems to know what I’m about. That is scary.
Writers and readers will ask the question of themselves and others: what draws you to a book–is it the plot or is it characters? For me, any writer worth their salt can plot a book until the cows come home. It’s the easiest part, in my opinion: Lord knows I’ve plotted enough books and stories over the last 15 years to fill a dozen trilogies. But characters are the key. Pat Conroy deep-dived into the hearts and souls of every character he put in The Prince of Tides. Only the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, could consistently do this book after book after book, regardless of the plot. I’m sure Pat Conroy did the same, but I’ve got to pluck up the courage to read another of his works. Maybe soon, who knows.