Prince of Tides (Conroy)

The Prince of Tides
Pat Conroy, 1986
Random House
688 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780553268881

Pat Conroy has created a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama. Spanning forty years, this is the story of turbulent Tom Wingo, his gifted and troubled twin sister, Savannah, and their struggle to triumph over the dark and tragic legacy of the extraordinary family into which they were born.

Filled with the vanishing beauty of the South Carolina Low Country as well as the dusty glitter of New York City, The Prince of Tides is Pat Conroy at his very best. (From the publisher.)

Barbra Streisand directed and starred in the 1991 version of this film, along with Nick Nolte and Blythe Danner.

Author Bio
Birth—October 26, 1945
Where—Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Education—B.A., The Citadel
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California, and Fripp
  IslandSouth, Carolina

Pat Conroy was born in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.

His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home, a novelist "who remembered every single violent act.... My father's violence is the central fact of my art and my life." Since the family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Pat changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.

After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Pat was fired for his unconventional teaching practices—such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students—and for his general lack of respect for the school's administration. Conroy evened the score when he exposed the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a powerful film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his confusion over his love and loyalty to an abusive and often dangerous father.

The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy to a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.

The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.

Pat remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome where he began The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time—with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in the film opposite Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.

Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story took place in South Carolina and Rome, and also reached back in time to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. This book, too, was a tremendous international bestseller.

While on tour for Beach Music, members of Conroy's Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. When his then-wife served him divorce papers while he was still on the road, Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. And so he began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer, is My Losing Season, Conroy's seventh book and his first work of nonfiction since The Water is Wide.

South of Broad, published in 2009, 14 years after Beach Music, tells the story of friendships, first formed in high school, that span two decades.

He currently lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King. (Adapted from the author's website and Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
A brilliant novel that ultimately affirms life, hope and the belief that one's future need not be contaminated by a monstrous past.
Chicago Tribune

A big sprawling saga of a novel, the kind Steinbeck used to write, the kind John Irving keeps writing, the kind you can hole up with and spend some days with and put down feeling that you've emerged from a terrible, wonderful spell.
San Francisco Chronicle

A masterpiece than can compare with Steinbeck's East Of Eden.... Some books make you laugh; some make you cry; some make you think. The Prince Of Tides is a rarity: It does all three.
Detroit Free Press

A literary gem.... The Prince of Tides is in the best tradition of novel writing. It is an engrossing story of unforgettable characters.
Pittsburgh Press

For sheer storytelling finesse, Conroy will have few rivals this season. His fourth novel is a seductive narrative, told with bravado flourishes, portentous foreshadowing, sardonic humor and eloquent turns of phrase. Like The Great Santini, it is the story of a destructive family relationship wherein a violent father abuses his wife and children. Henry Wingo is a shrimper who fishes the seas off the South Carolina coast and regularly squanders what little money he amasses in farcical business schemes; his beautiful wife, Lila, is both his victim and a manipulative and guilt-inflicting mother. The story is narrated by one of the children, Tom Wingo, a former high school teacher and coach, now out of work after a nervous breakdown. Tom alternately recalls his growing-up years on isolated Melrose Island, then switches to the present in Manhattan, where his twin sister and renowned poet, Savannah, is recovering from a suicide attempt. One secret at the heart of this tale is the fate of their older brother Luke; we know he is dead, but the circumstances are slowly revealed. Also kept veiled is "what happened on the island that day,'' a grisly scene of horror, rape and carnage that eventually explains much of the sorrow, pain and emotional alienation endured by the Wingo siblings. Conroy deftly manages a large cast of characters and a convoluted plot, although he dangerously undermines credibility through a device by which Tom tells the Wingo family saga to Savannah's psychiatrist. Some readers may find here a pale replica of Robert Penn Warren's powerful evocation of the Southern myth; others may see resemblances to John Irving's baroque imaginings. Most, however, will be swept along by Conroy's felicitous, often poetic prose, his ironic comments on the nature of man and society, his passion for the marshland country of the South and his skill with narrative.
Publishers Weekly

Savannah Wingo, a successful feminist poet who has suffered from hallucinations and suicidal tendencies since childhood, has never been able to reconcile her life in New York with her early South Carolina tidewater heritage. Her suicide attempt brings her twin brother, Tom, to New York, where he spends the next few months, at the request of Savannah's psychiatrist, helping to reconstruct and analyze her early life. In beautifully contrasting memories which play childhood fears against the joys and wonders of being alive, Tom creates and communicates the all-consuming sense of family which is Savannah's major strength as a poet and her tragic flaw as a human being. Conroy has achieved a penetrating vision of the Southern psyche in this enormous novel of power and emotion. —Thomas L. Kilpatrick, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale
Library Journal

(Young Adult) In order to aid a psychiatrist who is treating his psychotic sister, Tom Wingo arrives in Manhattan and describes figures from his youth, among them an abusive father, a mother obsessed with being accepted by Colleton's tawdry elite, eccentric grandparents, stolid brother Luke, and sensitive, poet-sister Savannah. Despite the book's length, scenes such as Grandmother Tolitha's visit to Ogletree's funeral home to try out coffins, Grandfather's yearly re-enactment of the stations of the Cross, Mrs. Wingo's passive-aggressive retaliation by serving her husband dog food, Luke's Rambo-like attempt to keep Colleton from becoming a nuclear plant site, and a bloody football game with the team's first black player deserve students' attention. While Conroy's skills at characterization and storytelling have made the book popular, his writing style may place it among modern classics. He adds enough detail so that readers can smell the salty low-country marsh, see the regal porpoise Snow against the dark ocean, and taste Mrs. Wingo's gourmet cooking and doctored dog food. The story is wholly Tom's; Conroy resists the temptation to include the vantage points of other characters. It is the reluctance of Tom to tell all, to recount rather than recreate his family's past, and to face up to the Wingos' mutual rejections that maintain the tension just below the story's surface. It is Tom's coming clean about his past that lays bare the truth and elevates Prince of Tides above a scintillating best seller. —Alice Conlon, Univ. of Houston
School Library Journal

Discussion Questions 
1. In the prologue Pat Conroy sets up many of the novel’s themes: his characters’ love of the Low Country and the South; the power Lila Wingo had over her children, who all adored her; their love of the natural world that shaped all three of their futures. In the midst of this idyllic piece of glorious signature Conroy writing, what signals does he give to his readers about the darkness that is to come in this novel?

2. The novel begins when Tom Wingo, a recently fired teacher and coach, married to a successful physician, and father of three, receives a call from his obviously manipulative mother asking him to go to New York to help his twin sister, Savannah, who has once again attempted suicide. His three young daughters had just expressed embarrassment that he, unlike their friends’ fathers, stays home and cooks meals while it is their mother who goes to work. What other event takes place before he leaves that makes him feel a failure, what he calls “a mediocre man”?

3. When Tom appears to be teasing his young daughters, he tells them that there is only one rule of life they must follow: “Never listen to what your parents say. Parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It is one of God’s most important laws.... Both Mama and I are screwing you up. If we knew how we were doing it we would stop because we adore you. But we’re parents and we can’t help it.... We are your enemies.” Are there any examples of good parenting in this novel that would argue against this warning?

4. Pat Conroy willingly admits that his novels are informed to a great degree by his life experiences. The Great Santini was about growing up as the son of a physically violent and abusive Marine fighter pilot. “I created a boy named Ben Meechum and gave him my story,” says Conroy. In The Lords of Discipline he took on his military college, The Citadel, in a book that resulted in a twenty-years-plus feud between the author and his school, which was only recently resolved. In writing The Prince of Tides Conroy attempts to come to terms with his childhood and with the realization that his mother may well have been the more powerful parent and the source behind the self-deception and family secrets that crippled her children. And yet he says in the novel, “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.” Do you believe him when he says this?

5. The Prince of Tides is filled with stories of transformation, for example, his father’s wartime conversion to Catholicism, his sister Savannah’s becoming a New Yorker. Can you name others?

6. The idea of twins has deep roots in literature, from Romulus and Remus in mythology, to Jacob and Esau in the Bible, to the twins in the more recent novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Can you think of other examples in literature? How are Tom and Savannah alike? How are they different?

7. When Tom first encounters Dr. Lowenstein, his sister’s psychiatrist, he is belligerent both to her and in his attitude toward the entire city of New York. Why, do you think, is he so suspicious? Do you feel she acted in the best interests of Savannah by involving her brother in her therapy? Tom is a teacher and Lowenstein is a psychoanalyst. In the end they help each other in ways they might never have predicted. Are the tools or the impulses that create teacher-coaches and therapists similar? How are they different? Does their relationship have anything to say about class issues? Give other examples of problems of communication brought about by class differences.

8. What psychological tools besides denial does Tom use to distance himself from pain?

9. Why, do you feel, does Pat Conroy use flashbacks throughout the novel? Do you find this technique helpful to you as a reader?

10. One might say that the truest example of integrity seems to be exemplified in the character of Luke, the older brother. Do you agree? Why or why not?

11. The natural world is clearly revered by Conroy. Can you find passages about nature that exemplify his power as a writer?

12. Give examples of how Pat Conroy uses animals to advance the plot.

13. Questions are raised regarding the price of gender throughout the novel. For instance, how does Lila treat Savannah differently from her sons? How does Savannah deal with the family’s secrets as opposed to the way her brothers deal with them?

14. Do you think there is such a thing as a southern novel? Is The Prince of Tides a southern novel? If so, what does that mean to you?

15. Who is the Prince of Tides?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

top of page (summary)


Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2018