Leopard Bloom King is an awkward, ugly 18-year-old with few friends. His life has been a mess ever since his brother, Stephen, killed himself at only ten years old. After spending years in mental institutions and later caught with cocaine in his pocket, Leo’s life has been anything but normal. In the summer before his senior year of high school, he meets the people who will influence the rest of his life, forming friendships and bonds that will prove stronger than anything Leo has known previously. Years later, their friendship will remain of primary importance to Leo as he and they must endure extraordinary hardships brought on by nature, the human mind, and a terrible disease.
My only previous experience with Pat Conroy was The Water Is Wide, a memoir that I just adored in high school, and I’ve meant to read more by him ever since. So when I opened this book, it was with a great deal of anticipation. And I enjoyed this story; the beginning feels slow and meandering, accustoming readers to the feel and the flow of South Carolina and the beginning of teenage friendships that are meant to last. The second section is more exciting and begins to encompass the troubles that these friendships have wrought even as they have brought blessings. The third section gives us another peek into the origin of the group, and the final section includes their pivotal struggle against a madman and a hurricane.
The story is indeed big and sprawling as the back cover promises, but I still wanted more. Largely, I wanted more of the origins of these friendships. I still found it hard to understand why they all coped with Chad, a member of the arrogant Southern aristocracy determined to put everyone down, or some of the other members of the group. I saw how they came together, but I suppose I didn’t understand how it lasted for all of the members of this group. Their conversations were entertaining, but rang somewhat untrue for me, and I just couldn’t believe anyone like Sheba Poe actually existed. Who stage manages their entry into a house party of close friends? The later sections were powerful, but without that essential basis, at times I couldn’t believe in the story.
And that’s a shame, because the story is quite a wild ride through almost every issue you can name. The friends go in search of a missing member of the group and have to deal with death, rape, adultery, and murder among their ranks. They even have a natural disaster pitted against them. The book resonates with the strength and feel of Charleston, a place I’ve never been to but would quite like to visit now. Conroy is an excellent writer and can make the words on the page simply come alive, even as he packs the story full with almost too much trauma.
South of Broad is a good book that, I think, has unfortunately missed being great. Still, I am encouraged to read more of Conroy’s works, as I think he is an excellent writer and is still worth my time.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review here.