My mom doesn’t read much fiction these days. Because when she’s fully immersed in a story, she doesn’t want to do anything but read. Everyday obligations become obstacles. They keep her from the page, and the next page, and being so fully inside a story that it’s the only thing that matters.
And when the story ends? When the fictive dream has broken? There’s reality again. And that takes some getting used to after living in a magnificent world built of someone else’s words.
My mom mentioned her thoughts about novels in passing, during a phone conversation, and she said, “I don’t know how you can read so much.”
I gave her a few answers, none of which I remember right now. Perhaps I told her that the escapist side of me craves novels for this very reason. That it’s easier to fall asleep after putting the day aside and crawling into another world. And that’s why I write, too–to create a place and space of story within the everyday mundanities. (Besides, my story is something to think about while doing the dishes…)
Last week I devoured a whole novel. Although I’m a fast reader, I generally indulge before bed, and never during the daytime, so each book gets read a chapter at a time, one night at a time. But this particular novel, “South of Broad” by Pat Conroy, took me in, sheltered me, and connected me to what my mom said about being so totally involved in a novel’s world. I read when I was supposed to be writing. I read during preschool hours. I read during a three-hour blood test. I read until I reached the last page.
And then the rest of the day I felt deflated. A little lost. Miserable, even, due to being ejected from that particular experience. I thought about the characters and the way Conroy shepherded them from the summer of 1969 through the autumn of 1989. How their lives changed and intertwined throughout the course of the 20-year story, which reads like a love letter to Charleston, South Carolina, as well as an homage to those long-lasting friendships that have made us change and grow.
I’ve never read a Conroy novel before, and I fell in love with “South of Broad” for its epic cast of characters, its narrator Leo, its ambitious trajectory over so many years in the lives of a group of friends and, of course, the phenomenal landscape writing.
Since becoming immersed in, and fully enamored with, Conroy’s masterful novel, I have read some reviews by folks disappointed by “South of Broad.” It seems most of the criticisms I read had to do with the novel not being realistic enough. But it’s fiction, not journalism. It’s intentional artifice. And Conroy excels at this. He shows us all his materials in the first section of the novel and then carefully builds them into a glorious structured house for the imagination, much like a master craftsman plotting a foundation, mixing the mortar and pressing each brick into position. At the end, we must step back to admire how all the disparate parts have become one whole, and wholly complex, original piece of art.
And I, for one, am grateful. Thank you, Mr. Conroy, for letting me spend a delicious week living inside the fictive dream you constructed with such grace.