Aug 05, 11
Read in August, 2011
This book is a retelling of life with the Great Santini as revamped and transformed in Sister Mary Norbert. The reversed parental roles are similar, the timeline again starts in the 1960s, and a South Carolina city serves as the location. Where former marine Bull Meecham brought military discipline into his family, the former nun Lisa King rules with religious sternness. Ben Meecham is translated into the narrator Leo “Toad” King, who endures parental disappointments, teenage angst, personal discoveries and losses.
Pat Conroy visits some universal topics: Belonging: societal cultures and subcultures; family, relatives, and orphans; friends and enemies; religions and vocations. Redemption: through works and not by words or prayers. Sex: ranging from simple salacious flirting to seditious conquests to sanctified unions.
Conroy intertwines sample studies that include: Friendship: ten featured characters’ lifelong couplings. Segregation: racial tensions in cafés, in schoolrooms and on the gridiron, or class distinctions via Charlestonian snobbery. Eye Problems: Toad and Starla. Mental Deficiencies: almost everyone. Suicide: Toad’s teenage brother Stephen and Toad’s estranged wife. Gays and AIDS: ongoing problems with Trevor and a tour of San Francisco’s subculture. Stalking and Serial Killing: the twins’ estranged father seems likely. Weather: climaxed with the destructive visit from Hurricane Hugo. Pedophile Priests: a topic that segues into the denouement of this novel.
Conroy’s style is beautifully descriptive and humorously provocative. Sarcasm drips from the narrative as well as from the narrator, Toad. There is delightful repartee between most characters and humor certainly defines the peacemaker, pacifist protagonist Toad.
The format is a bit peculiar. The ordinary timeline of Toad’s teenage years is interrupted with several chapters of the characters’ adventure 20 years later, then returns to high school, and finally cycles back into contemporary sequence. Nonetheless, the sequential separation works here.
The novel is a delightful panorama of Southern life. I’m glad I didn’t wait another few years before picking this book from my slush shelf.