Sunday, March 16, 2008

Book Review: Beach Music

Pat Conroy makes me wish I grew up in the South Carolina Low Country--and I really don't like hot, humid weather.

Growing up during the 1950's and 1960's, the children in that region had remarkable freedom. They swam, they fished, they boated, they camped out, and rarely did an adult cross their path. Which was probably a good thing, since most of the adults were alcoholic, passionate, and violent. They had Standards, and woe to the child who did not meet them. The mothers were beautiful, gracious, tremendous cooks, and psychologically vicious. The men were handsome, intelligent, frustrated, and madly in love with their wives even as they beat them. When their wives finally had the gumption to divorce them, the men were devastated.

The entire town knew what went on in the homes of everyone else. The children formed fierce friendships that lasted a lifetime. Religion was an important part of life, whether you were Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, or Jewish. Beach Music is no different.

The story opens with Jack McCall, former resident of Waterford, South Carolina, is living in Rome with his young daughter, Leah. The year is 1985 and Jack and Leah have lived in Rome since 1980, a year after Leah's mother committed suicide and her grandparents sued her father for custody. Jack, who writes cookbooks and culinary travel articles, has severed communication with his family and friends. But that is about to change.

Two childhood friends, Mike and Ledare (who was Jack's girlfriend in high school), have come to visit. Mike is a successful producer of action movies who wants to make a miniseries about Waterford and he wants Jack and Ledare to write it. Both are reluctant, for their own reasons. Ledare's ex-husband, Capers, is running for governor--their divorce was bitter and Capers has turned their children against their mother. Writing the miniseries would mean going back and dealing with her memories. Jack, of course, would also have to return and confront his demons.

And there is another issue they would have to address: Jordan, who may or may not have committed suicide because of a Vietnam war protest gone bad.

Jack's sister-in-law has also come to Rome to visit and to urge Jack to forgive her parents for their actions. They need to connect with their granddaughter--she is their only link to their dead daughter.

Still, Jack remains resolute: he will not return to Waterford. There is too much pain, too many emotional land mines.

And then he receives a telegram from one of his brothers. Their mother, Lucy, is dying of leukemia.

At the hospital we meet Jack's four brothers, all damaged in some way by their parents and coping with it the best they can. We meet Jack's father, the Judge, brilliant, abusive, and alcoholic. We meet his stepfather, who loves Lucy and is neither alcoholic nor abusive, but doesn't understand the dynamic of the five McCall brothers. Their love for their mother brings out the best--and the worst--in each of them.

Jack begins to make amends with the members of his family and his in-laws, who live next door t the house where Jack grew up. Ruth and George Fox are Holocaust survivors and have their own burdens of sorrow and secrets.

When Lucy goes into remission, Jack returns to Rome and makes plans to bring Leah back to Waterford for an extended visit. He realizes she deserves to know her relatives and her background. Jack needs to reconcile with his mother, his brothers, and even his father. And Lucy has her own secrets to confess.

Plus there is the matter of Mike's miniseries, Jordan, Capers, and Ledare.

Religion plays an import part in this story. Jack McCall is a fallen-away Catholic who sends his daughter to Catholic school in Rome during the week and to shul on Saturday because he promised his wife to raise his daughter Jewish. In Waterford he drops Leah off at her maternal grandparents house Friday evening for the Sabbath and picks her up on Saturday. Mike's grandfather, known as The Great Jew, plays an important part in the history of Waterford. Father Jude, Lucy's confessor, challenges Jack's lack of belief. (This story was published in 1995 and takes place about ten years earlier. Some of Jack's arguments against the Church are dated and don't include the more recent scandals.)

Mostly, this is a story about a generation--the generation born during the late 1940's, just after the war, the events leading up to the protests against the Vietnam war on college campuses, and how those protests split communities, separated families. Students who didn't really care about the war became caught up in the consequences of the protests, when college administrations reacted (or over-reacted) and inflamed passions further.

Now those college students are adults, married with children, careers, mortgages. This novel is about reconciling yourself with the results of the decisions you made back then. Rather than a "coming of age" novel, this is a "middle-age" novel, when Jack and his friends stop running from their pasts and truly become adults.

There is no gain without loss.

By the end of the book, the characters and the town of Waterford were real to me. I laughed, I cried, I recognized some of the family dynamics. I was very glad my family had much less drama growing up--I was exhausted! At 630 pages, Beach Music is not a quick read. But it's a satisfying one.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

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