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South of Broad, by Pat Conroy

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"This party is like a can of mixed nuts," observes Molly when she's first exposed to Leopold Bloom King's diverse group of friends, and that is a fitting description of the cast of characters that populate the pages of Conroy's epic South of Broad. The first indicator that some of the characters might harbor eccentricities is that the story begins with a celebration of Bloomsday, June 16, 1969, a day Leo's mother, a noted James Joyce scholar, forces him to commemorate in honor of his namesake, the protagonist of Ulysses. On that eventful Bloomsday, young Leo meets the various friends who will influence his entire adult life. They include flamboyant twins, Trevor and Sheila Poe, an orphaned brother and sister, Starla and Niles, two privileged blue blood Charleston teens, and a belligerent black high school football star. As different as they are from each other, they become the mainstay of Leo's life and their stories become Leo's. After an eventful senior year, the story moves to June of 1989, and finds Leo as a gossip columnist for the Charleston News and Courier. When the high school friends gather to welcome Sheila, a famous Hollywood star, back to Charleston, the ensuing "Big Chill" party becomes the scene of happy and painful revelations about the lives they've led and the problems they are now facing.

Pat Conroy, once again, brings the geography and culture of coastal South Carolina up close and personal for readers. His descriptive prose streams like the undulating tides that ebb and flow over the marshes of Charleston, mesmerizing and enthralling. Then he adds an ensemble of eccentric characters with compelling life stories, to make a thoroughly entertaining novel. South of Broad is told from Leo's point of view and ranges from his adolescent remembrances of the horrific trauma of discovering his older brother's suicide to his adult observations of the events that shaped his and his contemporaries' lives. The reader, Mark Deakins, is very believable as Leo, injecting just enough southern dialect to add authenticity to the presentation, without making Leo and the others seem like caricatures.

Listening to Pat Conroy's superbly crafted words read by such a skilled actor is a treat to be savored. Unlike most audio books that are listened to nonstop from start to finish, this one invites the listener to stop and replay particularly moving passages, either to hear an evocative phrase or to ponder an insightful comment. This is a book to be enjoyed on many levels--as an entertaining story, as a thought-provoking character study and as an opportunity to be charmed by the beauty and magic of language.

Ruth Mormon

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