Two things that I never thought would happen: 1) that I would read a novel titled Beach Music and 2) that I would rate this novel as one of the best ones I’ve read in a long time. My best friend Barry had been asking me to read this novel for months. When my wife and I visited her parents in Florida, I decided this would be my beach read. I knew next to nothing about its author Pat Conroy, only that he had written Prince of Tides and that he recently passed away. Despite being a massive novel at over 800 pages, I found it to be a beautifully written and thought-provoking work.
Jack McCall is an American who fled to Rome with his young daughter following the tragedy of his wife’s suicide and subsequent custody battle by his wife’s parents. When he learns that his mother is dying of cancer, he returns back to his home in South Carolina where he faces his past demons involving family and friends.
“But no one walks out of his family without reprisals: a family is too disciplined an army to offer compassion to its deserters.”
Coming home is not easy. As Jack returns to his birthplace, he becomes entangled in a painful but enlightening journey involving his family, in-laws, and high school friends. As new truths come to light, Jack learns that he misjudged his loved ones. One of the themes of this novel is survival, not only of the self but of our children as well. Jack’s mother lied about who she was and where she came from in order to protect her children from the same fate. Jack’s wife Shyla protects her daughter from her psychological issues by giving up her own life. The other members of Jack’s family have their own emotional issues as well. Jack’s father who is an alcoholic. Jack’s brothers all struggle to contain the youngest brother who has schizophrenia. You will feel better about your own family after reading this book.
The trauma from war is another theme in Beach Music. The lives in this story are overlaid with the horrors of the Holocaust and the ongoing trauma of Vietnam. Besides Jack’s search for healing, the book unfolds in a burst of action: there’s a conspiracy involving Jack’s best friend who has been living as a priest in Rome. With several story lines overlapping, it can be overwhelming. However, I promise that Conroy does a great job of tying together all of the loose ends in a satisfactory way.
“Music could ache and hurt, that beautiful music was a place a suffering man could hide.”
This is a beautifully written novel with some lovely descriptions of Rome. Conroy writes in a very lyrical way that helped make me feel as though I was actually there. Some of the more descriptions come across as over the top, but as I read further, I got used to his poetic style. Some descriptions I could do without, but for the most part, it all works together.
Despite the hefty subject matter, Conway is able to use humor. Several passages had me laughing out loud, particularly a scene involving Jack and his brothers being forced to strip and jump in the water to stop their mentally unstable brother from inciting violence. Jack has a very witty sense of humor which helps lighten the tone of the novel’s dark subject matter. This is the genius of the author. Conroy does a fantastic job of weaving some very heavy subject matter with compassion and humor. My favorite sections of the novel related to the stories told by Jack’s in-laws about their experiences during World War II. Beach Music contains the most horrific Holocaust story I have ever read. Another of the major themes of the book explore the effects of war on the human psyche, as well as the choices we make in order to make sense of the tragedies.
If you’ve read this novel, please comment your thoughts. If you haven’t read it, then please give it a try. Conroy is an author I will return to at some point.
“No story is a straight line. The geometry of a human life is too imperfect and complex, too distorted by the laughter of time and the bewildering intricacies of fate to admit the straight line into its system of laws.”