Elizabeth's Reviews > Beach Music

Beach Music by Pat Conroy
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's review
Aug 30, 2010

did not like it

I wanted to like Pat Conroy’s Beach Music. Really, I did. The opening paragraph (a stunning, lyrical evocation of a young woman’s suicide) drew me into the sprawling, eight hundred page tome. At first glance, the book seemed to have all the elements of a rip-roaring good yarn: betrayal, forgiveness, intergenerational conflict, and a number of love affairs thrown in for good measure.

At the story’s start, we meet main character Jack McCall, who (with only his daughter, Leah, for company) is living in voluntary exile in Rome, after his wife Shyla’s suicide some years before. Shyla’s death resulted in a bitter custody battle over Leah between Jack and Shyla’s parents. Now, Jack hopes to raise his daughter as an Italian, with no knowledge of his native South or of the family that threatened to tear them apart.

However, Jack’s fragile peace is not to last. Through a series of preposterous circumstances (a private eye trails Jack and Leah through much of the novel’s first few chapters), Jack is forced to confront his past and, eventually, return to his home state of South Carolina.

This is where the story began to lose me. Just when things should have been getting good, the narrative fell apart. Instead of a single inciting incident, we get three: the private eye, it seems, was hired by Shyla’s sister, Martha, who wants Jack to return home and reunite with Shyla’s father, who may or may not have previously-unrevealed insights into Shyla’s suicide.

At the same time, Jack’s old friend, Mike Hess (now a wildly-successful film producer), pops up out of nowhere with Jack’s former girlfriend, Ledare, in tow. Mike, you see, also wants Jack to return home, though his motivations are somewhat different. Mike hopes that Jack will sign on to a new project of his, a movie about their South Carolina childhoods, and (at the same time) provide information about a mutual friend, Jordan, who died (or, some say, disappeared) after a Vietnam War protest gone bad.

As if that weren’t enough, Jack also receives a phone call from his brother, Dupree, announcing that their mother has leukemia and Jack is wanted at home. It’s a lot to keep track of, and Beach Music lacks the narrative structure necessary to make these disparate elements hang together. My main complaint regarding this book was that Pat Conroy seemed hell-bent on packing as many increasingly-strange tangents into its pages as possible, while giving no thought whatsoever to what these episodes had in common or what kind of story they were supposed to tell.

Beach Music does not lack for memorable scenes. Still vivid in my mind’s eye (a month or more later) is an astonishing episode in which a teenage Jack and his friends Jordan and Capers Middleton are stranded at sea for fifteen days after a manta ray destroys their motorboat. These scenes had me glued to the pages, in suspense, and would have made a terrific short story. But they have no relation whatsoever to the overall arc of the novel.

Also excellent are a scene in which Jordan (at twelve, the abused, terrified child of a Marine Corps Colonel) achieves a moment of quiet courage in a psychiatrist’s office and the truly heroic struggle of Jack’s mother, Lucy McCall and her brother, Jude, to escape the brutal poverty of their childhood. Yet, as I turned the book’s final pages, I was left wondering what exactly happened. I’m still not sure what the overall point of the novel was or how these scenes related to each other.

Compounding my dislike for the book are the main characters themselves. I’m all about flawed characters, but not one of the people populating Conroy’s novel came across as likable or even very sympathetic. In particular, Jack McCall himself came across as a big, overgrown child. A scene in which he launches into a screaming tantrum at his dying mother almost made me throw the book down in disgust and I failed to share his happiness at his eventual coming-to-terms with his past.

This occurs during a ludicrous mock trial at the end of the book. Staged by Jack’s friend Mike, for a bizarre home-movie, the main characters come together on stage to tell their version of the events that eventually drove them apart. In the book, it’s every bit as corny and overwrought as it sounds. While reading this climax (supposedly a moment of grief and reconciliation for all concerned), I was left rolling my eyes, wondering why one character, in particular, would chose to incriminate himself during a trial with no legal baring, whatsoever.

Beach Music might be worth reading if what you’re after is sheer entertainment or a way to kill time, but don’t commit to its eight hundred-plus pages expecting to bond with its large cast of characters or a satisfying resolution at the end. After such greats as The Lords of Discipline, Beach Music is a disappointment from Conroy, from whom I’ve come to expect much more. Certainly, it’s not a book I’ll be recommending or returning to anytime soon.

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