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Beach Music

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Beach Music is about Jack McCall, an American living in Rome with his young daughter, trying to find peace after the recent trauma of his wife's suicide. But his solitude is disturbed by the appearance of his sister-in-law, who begs him to return home, and of two school friends asking for his help in tracking down another classmate who went underground as a Vietnam protester and never resurfaced. These requests launch Jack on a journey that encompasses the past and the present in both Europe and the American ...
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Beach Music: A Novel

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Overview

Beach Music is about Jack McCall, an American living in Rome with his young daughter, trying to find peace after the recent trauma of his wife's suicide. But his solitude is disturbed by the appearance of his sister-in-law, who begs him to return home, and of two school friends asking for his help in tracking down another classmate who went underground as a Vietnam protester and never resurfaced. These requests launch Jack on a journey that encompasses the past and the present in both Europe and the American South, and that leads him to shocking - and ultimately liberating - truths.
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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Mr. Conroy is verbosely eloquent, imaginatively violent and a superior yarn spinner, sometimes to a fault....What betrays Mr. Conroy too often are his flights of lyrical prose. True, now and then he catches the lightning instead of the lightning bug....Most damaging of all, "Beach Music" builds to a disappointing climax that is quite literally staged and rings as false as Eugene O'Neill at his most wooden....When all is said and overdone in "Beach Music," Mr. Conroy leaves you begging for less. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A man tries to make peace with himself in the wake of his wife's suicide in Conroy's long-awaited blockbuster, which was a PW bestseller for 24 weeks. June
Library Journal
Conroy's was the most talked-about book at the American Booksellers Association convention, even though it was reputedly only half-written. Hero Jack McCall, who has fled to Rome after his wife's suicide, is asked to locate a Sixties buddy whose antiwar activity drove him underground.
Bill Ott
As is the case with so many likely best-sellers, the publisher of Pat Conroy's new novel did not distribute advance galleys to prepublication review media, ensuring that by the time you read this review, library patrons will already be clamoring for the opportunity to weep their way through another melodramatic extravaganza from the author of "The Prince of Tides" (1987). They won't be disappointed. Conroy evolves from the Margaret Mitchell school of southern writing, where everything must be Big--the smartest, most beautiful people on the planet living the biggest lives on the grandest sets and, of course, wracked by the greatest tragedies. It's all here in the story of Jack McCall of Waterford, South Carolina, his five brothers, drunken father, white-trash mother, and Holocaust-surviving in-laws. Nothing small happens in this book: the McCalls' story is played out against World War II, Auschwitz, the sixties, and, of course, the South in all its triumph and tragedy. Even the little moments are big in their way: the best cup of cappuccino, the most beautiful southern evening, the freshest shrimp, the most precocious kid. And yet, sneer as we will, we also must admit that Conroy plays the high-concept game as well as anyone. Like Mitchell, he builds narrative momentum that is impossible to resist, and he writes with a hammy eloquence that, while often infuriating, fits his subject matter perfectly. You won't stop reading, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.
From the Publisher
“Reading PAT CONROY is like watching Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel.”
Houston Chronicle

“Astonishing . . . stunning . . . the range of passions and subjects that brings life to every page is almost endless.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Blockbuster writing at its best.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“PAT CONROY’S writing contains a virtue now rare in most contemporary fiction: passion.”
The Denver Post

“Magnificent...beach music is clearly CONROY’S best.”
San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385475785
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/1995
  • Edition description: 1st ed Large Print
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 1312

Meet the Author

Pat Conroy is the bestselling author of The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides, and Beach Music. He lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina.

Biography

Pat Conroy was born on October 26, 1945, in Atlanta, Georgia, to a young career military officer from Chicago and a Southern beauty from Alabama, whom Pat often credits for his love of language. He was the first of seven children.

His father was a violent and abusive man, a man whose biggest mistake, Conroy once said, was allowing a novelist to grow up in his home, a novelist "who remembered every single violent act... my father's violence is the central fact of my art and my life." Since the family had to move many times to different military bases around the South, Pat changed schools frequently, finally attending the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, South Carolina, upon his father's insistence. While still a student, he wrote and then published his first book, The Boo, a tribute to a beloved teacher.

After graduation, Conroy taught English in Beaufort, where he met and married a young woman with two children, a widow of the Vietnam War. He then accepted a job teaching underprivileged children in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie Island, a remote island off the South Carolina shore. After a year, Pat was fired for his unconventional teaching practices -- such as his unwillingness to allow corporal punishment of his students -- and for his general lack of respect for the school's administration. Conroy evened the score when he exposed the racism and appalling conditions his students endured with the publication of The Water is Wide in 1972. The book won Conroy a humanitarian award from the National Education Association and was made into the feature film Conrack, starring Jon Voight.

Following the birth of a daughter, the Conroys moved to Atlanta, where Pat wrote his novel, The Great Santini, published in 1976. This autobiographical work, later made into a powerful film starring Robert Duvall, explored the conflicts of his childhood, particularly his confusion over his love and loyalty to an abusive and often dangerous father.

The publication of a book that so painfully exposed his family's secret brought Conroy to a period of tremendous personal desolation. This crisis resulted not only in his divorce but the divorce of his parents; his mother presented a copy of The Great Santini to the judge as "evidence" in divorce proceedings against his father.

The Citadel became the subject of his next novel, The Lords of Discipline, published in 1980. The novel exposed the school's harsh military discipline, racism and sexism. This book, too, was made into a feature film.

Pat remarried and moved from Atlanta to Rome where he began The Prince of Tides which, when published in 1986, became his most successful book. Reviewers immediately acknowledged Conroy as a master storyteller and a poetic and gifted prose stylist. This novel has become one of the most beloved novels of modern time—with over five million copies in print, it has earned Conroy an international reputation. The Prince of Tides was made into a highly successful feature film directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in the film opposite Nick Nolte, whose brilliant performance won him an Oscar nomination.

Beach Music (1995), Conroy's sixth book, was the story of Jack McCall, an American who moves to Rome to escape the trauma and painful memory of his young wife's suicidal leap off a bridge in South Carolina. The story took place in South Carolina and Rome, and also reached back in time to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War. This book, too, was a tremendous international bestseller.

While on tour for Beach Music, members of Conroy's Citadel basketball team began appearing, one by one, at his book signings around the country. When his then-wife served him divorce papers while he was still on the road, Conroy realized that his team members had come back into his life just when he needed them most. And so he began reconstructing his senior year, his last year as an athlete, and the 21 basketball games that changed his life. The result of these recollections, along with flashbacks of his childhood and insights into his early aspirations as a writer, is My Losing Season, Conroy's seventh book and his first work of nonfiction since The Water is Wide.

He currently lives in Fripp Island, South Carolina with his wife, the novelist Cassandra King.

Author biography courtesy of Pat Conroy's official web site.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Donald Patrick Conroy (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      San Francisco and South Carolina
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1945
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, Georgia
    1. Education:
      B.A.,The Citadel, 1967

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I am usually up when the Piazza Farnese awakens. In darkness I brew my coffee and take a cup up to the terrace where I watch first light come over the deer-colored city.

At six in the morning, the man at the newspaper stand arrives and begins arranging magazines beneath his canopy. Then a truck enters the piazza from the west carrying bales of Il Messaggero and other morning papers. The two carabinieri who guard the entrance to the French Embassy switch on the lights of their jeep to begin their slow perfunctory circling of the Palazzo Farnese. Wearing the same expressions, like face cards in a disfigured deck, the carabinieri seem bored and usually you can see the pale glow of their cigarettes against the dashboards as they sit in their cars during the long Roman night. A van carrying fragrant bags of coffee then arrives in front of the Bon Caffe at the same time the owner of the cafe rolls up the steel shutters. His first cup of coffee always goes to the driver of the truck, the second to the owner of the newspaper stand. A small boy, the son of the owner, then takes two cups of black coffee to the carabinieri across the piazza just as the nuns in Santa Brigida begin to stir in the convent across from my building.

While it is still dark beneath the annealed stars and low-seated moon a nun opens the small steel gate in front of the Church of Santa Brigida, an act signifying that Mass is about to start. There is solitude in the fatigue of watching such beginnings and I then ritually count the thirteen churches I can see from my terrace. I was still counting them when I spotted a man who had been following us for the last few days enter the piazza from theCampo dei Fiori.

I slipped behind an oleander bush as the man looked up toward my terrace, then entered the Bon Caffe. I continued to count the bell towers and the four great moony clocks whose hands commemorated the exact moment of their death for Rome to see. I listened with pleasure to the music of the fountains in the piazza.

Across the piazza, a nun moved on the church's terrace this Monday morning, heedless as a moth in her mothering of roses. A brindled cat stalked a pigeon into the first slice of sunlight in the piazza, but a bum clapped his hands and shooed them both away. The man who'd been following me came out of the Bon Caffe and looked my way again. He lit a cigarette, then walked to the newspaper stand and bought a copy of Il Messaggero.

Below me the piazza began to bloom with life as carts rolled into it and pedestrians entered from the side streets. Pigeons called to each other from the stately rows of fleurs-de-lys that stretched along the entablature of the French Embassy. I love both the regularity and austereness of my piazza.

At 7 a.m. on this day the roofers returned to work on the apartment across the alley, replacing the old rows of ceramic tile with new ones, creating a strange music of nails against tiles that sounded like the playing of xylophones underwater. I finished my coffee and went down to wake up Leah for school.

As I walked over to her window and opened the shutter, Leah asked:

"Is that man still watching for us, Daddy?"

"He's waiting for us in the piazza, just like before."

"Who do you think he is?" she asked.

"I'll find out today, sweetheart."

"What if he's a kidnapper? Maybe he'll sell me to the Gypsies and I'll have to make a living robbing tourists."

"You've been talking to Maria again. Don't listen to her about Gypsies or about Communists. Hurry up, now. Get ready for school. Suor Rosaria always blames me if you're late."

"What if he tries to hurt me, Daddy?"

I lifted my daughter up into the air until we were looking at each other eye to eye.

"I told you before, your daddy may be stupid, but what else am I?"

"Big," she giggled.

"How big?"

"Real big. You're six feet six inches tall."

"What do the kids in your school call me?"

"They call you Il Gigante, the giant," she said, laughing again.

"I'm the giant. The guy down there's the little midget who climbs up the beanstalk."

"But the little midget kills the giant by chopping down the beanstalk," she said.

I hugged her and laughed. "You're smarter than hell, Leah. Just like your mama. Don't worry. That was a fairy tale. In real life, giants clean their teeth with the leg bones of guys like that."

"That's disgusting. I'm going to brush my teeth."

I heard Maria let herself in through the front door and call out "Buon giorno, piccolina" to Leah as she passed in the hallway. Maria stored her umbrella in the front closet, then came to the kitchen where I poured her a cup of coffee.

"Buon giorno, Dottore," Maria said.

"I'm not a doctor, Maria," I answered in my own formal Italian. I am unable to master Maria's dialect. It sounds like part chirruping and part speech impediment, but she has never grown impatient when I have trouble understanding her.

"In Italy, you're a doctor," she said in Italian. "So enjoy it and hold your tongue. I love calling you Dottore in front of the other maids. They know I work for a man of leisure. By the way, your friend is still there."

"I saw him from the terrace. Does anyone know him?"

"The portiere talked to the owner of the Bon Caffe. The stranger says he's a tourist from Milano. But why would a tourist look only at this apartment and ignore the Palazzo Farnese. Bruno, at the newsstand, says that he's sure the man is a policeman and that you must be involved with drugs or the Red Brigades. None of the carabinieri have ever seen him but they're too young to have seen anyone but their mothers. He buys cigarettes in the cartoleria from Giannina. The whole piazza is watching him. He does not seem dangerous. They said to tell you not to fear."

"Tell them thanks. I'll try to repay them."

"No need," she answered. "Even though you and la piccolina are foreigners, you are part of the piazza. Everyone watches out for his neighbor."

"Marry me, Maria," I said, taking hold of her hand. "Marry me and I'll give you my money and let you raise my child."

"You speak foolishness to me. Sciocchezze," Maria said, giggling madly and jerking her hand away. "Americano pazzo. You tease me too much and one day I say yes and what will you do, Dottore?"

"Call the Pope and tell him to get his ass over to Santo Pietro for a wedding ceremony."

"You are too big for me, Signor McCall," she said, appraising me. "You would kill me in bed."

"Excuses, excuses," I replied as Leah appeared in the kitchen doorway already dressed for school. She smiled broadly so I could inspect her carefully brushed teeth. I went over her, checked her ears and neck, and nodding approval, I sent her toward Maria, who began to put the child's hair in pigtails. Leah's hair was a dark wave that kindled beneath the electric light. When she shook it, it shimmered, roiled like something half-animal, half-river.

"Bellissima. Bellissima," Maria sang as she twisted Leah's hair into fine braids. "Prettiest little girl in the piazza."

The Piazza Farnese was the central fact of Leah's life. She was blissfully unaware that I was on the run from a past that had put too many hunters in the field against me. She did not remember the flight out of South Carolina to New York or the night flight on Alitalia that brought us to Rome.

She squeezed my hand as we said good morning to the portiere and stepped out into the bright light.

The waiting man turned his back and lit another cigarette. Then he pretended to read a historical marker placed just above the door of the farmacia.

"You won't fight him, will you, Daddy?" Leah asked.

"You've got my word I won't fight him. You think I'm stupid? After what happened last time."

"It scared me when you went to jail," she said.

"Not half as badly as it scared me. Rome ended your daddy's boxing career."

"All the nuns know you were in prison at Regina Coeli," she said, with great eight-year-old disapproval. "Even Suor Rosaria. It's very embarrassing."

"It was a cultural misunderstanding," I explained as we walked through the crowded piazza. "Il Gigante thought he had to kick ass. It was an error in judgment that any American could have made."

"You owe me a thousand lire," Leah said.

"I didn't say a cuss word. I don't owe you a dime."

"You said the "A' word. That's a thousand lire."

"Ass is not a cuss word. It means a small donkey and it comes from the Bible. Let's see: "They rode Jesus through the city seated on a small ass.'"

"That's not how you used the word," she said. "If you're fair about it you'll give me a thousand lire."

"I'm an adult," I said. "It's part of my job description to be totally unfair to every child I meet."

"I was in prison with you," Leah said, primly. "Suor Rosaria thinks you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"I was victimized by a male-dominated society that didn't understand me."

"You were a brute," said Leah.

Anytime I lost my temper, raised my voice, or found myself in a situation that contained the seeds of discord, Leah would remind me of my most contentious encounter with the habits and customs of Italy. It happened in our first months in Rome, when I was still acclimating myself to the myriad responsibilities a man encountered trying to raise a child single-handedly in a foreign city.

Every day I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer variety of needs and wants manufactured by this simple child. Leah made me feel as though I required the skills of a city manager to move her through all the mazelike conundrums that Rome could throw up in our paths. Through an act of faith I had discovered the right pediatrician. To get a telephone installed required three trips to city hall, four to the telephone company, three bribes of hard cash, and a case of good wine to the portiere who knew the brother of a friend who lived next door to the mayor of Rome. The city prided itself on the extremism of its inefficiency. Its good-natured anarchy left me exhausted at the end of each day.

But I had encountered no trouble in Rome until I relaxed my guard and found myself shopping near midday beneath the canopies that shaded those fabulous fruit and vegetable stands in the Campo dei Fiori. As I led my daughter through that squawking aviary of human commerce, I loved to study the vast tiers of fruit with the wasps sipping the nectar of plums and yellow jackets happy as puppies among the grapes and peaches. Pointing out the wasps to Leah, I admired out loud the accord that existed between the wasps and vendors as if they had signed a treaty of entente to underscore their partnership in the business of selling and eating fruit.

The sheer theater of the street life in the Campo enthralled Leah from our first week in the neighborhood. Each day, we would drift from the north end where we bought bread to our last stop at Fratelli Ruggeri, whose shop smelled of cheese and pork and whose ceiling was hung with fifty legs of prosciutto. Huge wheels of Parmesan cheese as large as truck tires were rolled out from the back. There were five brothers and each brother had a unique and tragic personality as though they had bit parts in five different operas. Each was a law unto himself and they lent a note of improvisation and theater to the selling of their fragrant produce. It was outside of their store that I ran into trouble when I remembered I had forgotten to buy olives.

As Leah and I again walked the length of the Campo, past the knife-sharpener on his stationary bicycle and the booths that sold lungs and offal, we ran straight into one of those fire-breathing marital scraps of the De Angelo couple. Though it took us a while to learn their names, I had witnessed several fights between Mimmo and Sophia De Angelo before in the Piazza Farnese. Mimmo was a laborer and an alcoholic and could often be seen with a bottle of grappa drinking alone on the stone bench that ran for fifty meters across the front of the palazzo. He was stocky and built low to the ground with hairy shoulders and thick, powerful arms. When sitting in the piazza drinking grappa from the bottle, he seemed to grow dark rather than drunk.

Once the darkness came he began muttering expletives at everything about his life that he found disappointing. His wife would generally come upon him in this condition and their screaming at each other was loud enough to be heard by pedestrians walking along the Tiber and those coming out of the Piazza Navona. Whatever protocols the De Angelos kept in the privacy of their apartment did not apply to their violent public encounters. Leah and I had watched several of them from our window high over the piazza, and for sheer volume and quality of invective this Roman couple were in a class by themselves. The quarrels usually ended with a distraught and weeping Sophia breaking into a shameful run back to her home after realizing that the whole piazza was listening to and thoroughly enjoying the couple's histrionics.

"He's mean," Leah had said.

"Italians don't hit," I assured her. "They just yell."

But these domestic quarrels between the De Angelos began to grow in frequency and decibels. Sophia was pretty and theatrical and ten years younger than her hard, inattentive husband. Her legs were beautiful, her figure full, and her eyes brimmed with pain. Each day Mimmo drank more and Sophia wept more and their level of language became more charged with the ancient sorrow of the poor and the hopeless. Maria told me Mimmo was threatening to kill Sophia because she'd shamed him among his neighbors and that a man was nothing if he lost his sense of honor before his friends and countrymen.

Copyright 2002 by Pat Conroy
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First Chapter

In 1980, a year after my wife leapt to her death from the Silas Pearlman Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina, I moved to Italy to begin life anew, taking our small daughter with me. Our sweet Leah was not quite two when my wife, Shyla, stopped her car on the highest point of the bridge and looked over, for the last time, the city she loved so well. She had put on the emergency brake and opened the door of our car, then lifted herself up to the rail of the bridge with the delicacy and enigmatic grace that was always Shyla's catlike gift. She was also quick-witted and funny, but she carried within her a dark side that she hid with bright allusions and an irony as finely wrought as lace. She had so mastered the strategies of camouflage that her own history had seemed a series of well-placed mirrors that kept her hidden from herself.

It was nearly sunset and a tape of the Drifters' Greatest Hits poured out of the car's stereo. She had recently had our car serviced and the gasoline tank was full. She had paid all the bills and set up an appointment with Dr. Joseph for my teeth to be cleaned. Even in her final moments, her instincts tended toward the orderly and the functional. She had always prided herself in keeping her madness invisible and at bay; and when she could no longer fend off the voices that grew inside her, their evil set to chaos in a minor key, her breakdown enfolded upon her, like a tarpaulin pulled across that part of her brain where once there had been light. Having served her time in mental hospitals, exhausted the wide range of pharmaceuticals, and submitted herself to the priestly rites of therapists of every theoretic persuasion, she was defenselesswhen the black music of her subconscious sounded its elegy for her time on earth.

On the rail, all eyewitnesses agreed, Shyla hesitated and looked out toward the sea and shipping lanes that cut past Fort Sumter, trying to compose herself for the last action of her life. Her beauty had always been a disquieting thing about her and as the wind from the sea caught her black hair, lifting it like streamers behind her, no one could understand why anyone so lovely would want to take her own life. But Shyla was tired of feeling ill-made and transitory and she wanted to set the flags of all her tomorrows at half-mast. Three days earlier, she had disappeared from our house in Ansonborough and only later did I discover that she had checked in to the Mills-Hyatt House to put her affairs in order. After making appointments, writing schedules, letters, and notes that would allow our household to continue in its predictable harmony, she marked the mirror in her hotel room with an annulling X in bright red lipstick, paid her bill with cash, flirted with the doorman, and gave a large tip to the boy who brought her the car. The staff at the hotel remarked on her cheerfulness and composure during her stay.

As Shyla steadied herself on the rail of the bridge a man approached her from behind, a man coming up from Florida, besotted with citrus and Disney World, and said in a low voice so as not to frighten the comely stranger on the bridge, "Are you okay, honey?"

She pirouetted slowly and faced him. Then with tears streaming down her face, she stepped back, and with that step, changed the lives of her family forever. Her death surprised no one who loved her, yet none of us got over it completely. Shyla was that rarest of suicides: no one held her responsible for the act itself; she was forgiven as instantly as she was missed and afterward she was deeply mourned.

For three days I joined the grim-faced crew of volunteers who searched for Shyla's remains. Ceaselessly, we dragged the length and breadth of the harbor, enacting a grotesque form of braille as hoods felt their way along the mudflats and the pilings of the old bridge that connected Mount Pleasant and Sullivan's Island. Two boys were crabbing when they noticed her body moving toward them beside the marsh grass.

After her funeral, a sadness took over me that seemed permanent, and I lost myself in the details and technicalities connected to death in the South. Great sorrow still needs to be fed and I dealt with my disconsolate emptiness by feeding everyone who gathered around me to offer their support. I felt as though I were providing sustenance for the entire army in the field who had come together to ease the malignant ache I felt every time Shyla's name was mentioned. The word Shyla itself became a land mine. That sweet-sounding word was merciless and I could not bear to hear it.

So I lost myself in the oils and condiments of my well-stocked kitchen. I fatted up my friends and family, attempted complicated recipes I had always put off making, and even tried my hand at Asian cuisine for the first time. With six gas burners ablaze, I turned out velvety soups and rib-sticking stews. I alternated between cooking and weeping and I prayed for the repose of the soul of my sad, hurt wife. I suffered, I grieved, I broke down, and I cooked fabulous meals for those who came to comfort me.

It was only a short time after we buried Shyla that her parents sued me for custody of my child, Leah, and their lawsuit brought me running back into the real world. I spent a dispiriting year in court trying to prove my fitness as a father. It was a time when I met a series of reptilian lawyers so unscrupulous that I would not have used their marrow to feed wild dogs or their wiry flesh to bait a crab pot. Shyla's mother and father had gone crazy with grief and I learned much about the power of scapegoating by watching their quiet hatred of me as they grimaced though the testimony regarding my sanity, my finances, my reputation in the community, and my sexual life with their eldest child.

Though I have a whole range of faults that piqued the curiosity of the court, few who have ever seen me with my daughter have any doubts about my feelings for her. I get weak at the knees at the very sight of her. She is my certification, my boarding pass into the family of man, and whatever faith in the future I still retain.

But it was not my overriding love of Leah that won the day in court. Before she took her final drive, Shyla had mailed me a letter that was part love letter and part apology for what she had done. When my lawyer had me read that letter aloud to the court, it became clear to Shyla's parents and everyone present that laying her death at my feet was, at best, a miscarriage of justice. Her letter was an act of extraordinary generosity written in the blackest hours of her life. She blew it like a kiss toward me as a final gesture of a rare, exquisite sensibility. Her letter saved Leah for me. But the ferocity of that court battle left me exhausted, bitter, and raw around the edges. It felt as though Shyla had died twice.

I answered my wife's leap from the bridge and the fierceness of that legal battle with a time of disorientation and sadness; and then with Italy. Toward Europe, I looked for respite and hermitage, and the imminence of my secret flight from South Carolina again restored a fight spirit within me. I had made a good living as a food and travel writer and running away had always been one of the things I did best.

The flight to Europe was my attempt to place the memory of both Shyla and South Carolina permanently in the past. I hoped I would save my life and Leah's from the suffocation I was beginning to feel in the place where Shyla and I had come of age together. For me, the South was carry-on baggage I could not shed no matter how many borders I crossed, but my daughter was still a child and I wanted her to grow into young womanhood as a European, blissfully unaware of that soft ruinous South that had killed her mother in one of its prettiest rivers. My many duties as a father I took with great seriousness, but there was no law that I was aware of that insisted I raise Leah as a Southerner. Certainly, the South had been a mixed blessing for me and I carried some grievous wounds into exile with me. All the way across the Atlantic Leah slept in my lap and when she awoke, I began her transformation by teaching her to count in Italian. And so in Rome we settled and began the long process of refusing to be Southern, even though my mother started a letter-writing campaign to coax me back home. Her letters arrived every Friday: "A Southerner in Rome? A low country boy in Italy? Ridiculous. You've always been restless, Jack, never knew how to be comfortable with your own kind. But mark my words. You'll be back soon. The South's got a lot wrong with it. But it's permanent press and it doesn't wash out."

Though my mother was onto something real, I stuck by my guns. I would tell American tourists who questioned me about my accent that I no longer checked the scores of the Atlanta Braves in the Herald Tribune and they could not get me to reread Faulkner or Miss Eudora at gun-point. I did not realize or care that I was attempting to expunge all that was most authentic about me. I was serious about needing some time to heal and giving my soul a much needed rest. My quest was amnesia; my vehicle was Rome. For five years, my plan worked very well.

But no one walks out of his family without reprisals: a family is too disciplined an army to offer compassion to its deserters. No matter how much they sympathized with all my motives, those who loved me most read a clear text of treason in my action. They thought that by forcing me away from South Carolina, Shyla's leap had succeeded in taking Leah and me over the rail with her.

I understood completely, but I was so burnt out I did not care. I threw myself at the Italian language with gusto and became fluent in the street talk of the shopkeepers and the vendors of our neighborhood. In the first year of our exile, working all the angles of my trade, I completed my third cookbook, a compilation of recipes I had gathered over a ten-year career of dining out in some of the best restaurants in the South. I also wrote a travel book on Rome that became popular with American tourists as soon as it hit the giornalai. I urged every American who read it to understand Rome was both sublime and imperishably beautiful, a city that melted into leaf-blown silences and gave a splendid return to any tourist adventurous enough to stray from the main trade routes of tourism. All the pangs and difficulties of my own homesickness went into the writing of that book. The artfully hidden subtext in those first years was that foreign travel was worth every discomfort and foul-up, but took a radical toll on the spirit. Though I could write about the imperishable charms of Rome forever, I could not quiet that pearly ache in my heart that I diagnosed as the cry of home.

I kept that cry to myself, in fact, did not even admit that it was something I heard or felt. I concentrated on the task of raising Leah in a culture alien to me and I hired a maid named Maria Parise from the Umbrian countryside and watched with pleasure as she took over the task of mothering Leah. Maria was a simple, strong-willed woman, God-fearing and superstitious, as only a peasant can be, who brought an undiminishable joy to the raising of this small motherless American.

In a short amount of time Leah became part of the native fauna around the Palazzo Farnese, a beloved romanina adopted by the people who loved and plied their trades around the piazza, and she rapidly turned into the first real linguist produced by my family. Her Italian was flawless as she navigated the teeming stalls along the Campo dei Fiori with its wild rivers of fruit and cheese and olives. Very early on, I taught Leah how to tell where we were in the Campo by using her sense of smell. The south side was glazed with the smell of slain fish and no amount of water or broomwork could ever eliminate the tincture of ammonia scenting that part of the piazza. The fish had written their names in those stones. But so had the young lambs and the coffee beans and the torn arugula and the glistening tiers of citrus and the bread baking that produced a golden brown perfume from the great ovens. I whispered to Leah that a sense of smell was better than a yearbook for imprinting the delicate graffiti of time in the memory. I knew that Leah had developed a bloodhound's nose when in the middle of the second year she stopped me as we passed by the Ruggeri brothers' alimentari and said, "The truffles have arrived, Daddy, they're here," as I caught the signature odor of pure earth. As a reward, I bought Leah a fraction of that truffle, priced as dearly as uranium, and sliced it into her scrambled eggs the next morning.

The raising of Leah consumed a large portion of my days and made me place my own sorrow over the loss of Shyla in a seldom visited back lot of my life, allowing me no time to devote to my own complex feelings over her death. Leah's happiness superseded everything in my life and I was determined I would not pass our family's infinite capacity for suffering on to her. I knew that Leah, as Shyla's child and my own, would get more than her portion of the genes of grief. Together, our families contained enough sad stories to jump-start a colony of lemmings toward the nearest body of water. I had no idea if the seeds of our madness burned in secret deposits in my beautiful child's bloodstream or not. But I vowed to protect her from those stories, from both sides of her family, that could set in motion the forces that had brought me spiritually bloody and beaten to the Fiumicino airport in the first place. I confess that I became the censor of my daughter's history. The South that I described to Leah at bedtime every night existed only in my imagination. I admitted no signs of danger or nightmare. There was no dark side to the Southern moon that I recalled to my daughter, and the rivers ran clean and the camellias were always in bloom. It was a South that existed without sting or thorns or heartache.

Because I have inherited my family's gift for storytelling, my well-told lies became Leah's memories. Without realizing it, I made the mistake of turning South Carolina into a lost and secret paradise to my daughter. By carefully editing what I thought would harm her, I turned my childhood into something as glamorous as forbidden fruit. Though Rome would mark her with its most exacting emblems, I did not note the exact moment I touched my child with a lust to see the fierce, rarefied beauty of her birthplace. Even as Leah became part of the secrets that Rome whispered, she was not a native of the city, not indigenous like the flowery lichens that grew along the wall that held back the Tiber.
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Foreword

1. The book begins and ends with Shyla. What’s her importance to the narrative? How does her suicide set the story into motion? 

2. Jack finds the South both alluring and repellent–to him it is simultaneously a place of great beauty and great danger. After hearing his story and those of his friends and relatives, do you agree with him? And do you think that Jack’s view of the South is informed by Pat Conroy’s own views?

 3. For Jack, food is a comfort–almost a religion. What do the other characters hold dear, and what does it say about them? 

4. In the novel, Jack and Ledare are writing a script for a television series about their families’ lives. Mike makes it clear that this series will tell the exact same stories that Jack narrates to us. Why do you think Pat Conroy decided to do this? Does it shape your reading of the book? 

5. The ocean has such a palpable presence that it feels like it’s a character itself. What do you think it symbolizes? Does it have a different meaning for each of the characters? 

6. If you’re familiar with Pat Conroy’s other novels, what parallels can you draw between the father-son relationships in his previous stories and Jack’s and Jordan’s relationships with their fathers? 

7. Jack has so many brothers that, with the exception of John Hardin, they tend to blend together. Why do you think he has so many brothers? What’s their role in the novel? 

8. Many of the novel’s characters are incredibly concerned by how they appear to others: Lucy creates a fake past for herself to hide her whitetrash roots; General Elliott is fixated on being the perfect military man–even unto the point of abandoning his son; and Capers is obsessed with his family’s legacy. Do you think these characters go too far? Is their preoccupation with appearances the result of their southern upbringing? 

9.When Capers tries to catch the gigantic manta ray on his fishing trip with Jack, Jordan, and Mike, he almost kills all of them. What’s the significance of his failure? Does it make him a tragic figure? 

10. Shyla is so deeply impacted by her father’s untold story that she tattoos her arm with his concentration camp number before jumping to her death. Do you think that hidden stories can end up being more powerful than shared ones? Why? 

11. Betsy hates Jack. She says, “I’m trying to think where I met a bigger asshole.” What’s unlikable about Jack, and where do we see it besides in his treatment of Betsy? Do you think Jack’s flaws make him an unreliable narrator? 

12. The two holiest men in the novel–Father Jude and Jordan–have both killed people. What does this say about the author’s vision of right and wrong? Can murder be justified? Can it be atoned for outside of a prison cell? 

13. At the end of the novel, we find out that the Vietnam War was the event that ended up splicing Jack’s group of friends. Were the characters responsible for their actions, or were events beyond their control? 

14. Did Jack make the right choice by forgiving Capers? 

15.Why does Jack decide to return to Rome at the end of the novel? 

16. What does the title Beach Music mean to you after finishing the book? 

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. We see much inflexibility here: Catholic; Judaic; militaristic. Capers says: "`Rules are a form of discipline. They have their own reason for existing'" (430). And Martha says of George, "`he thought he was being a good Jew'"; to which Jack responds, "`And a bad human being'" (64). Whose intolerance is greater: George's or Jack's? Is it the code that is wrong or the unwillingness to respect it? Think of the religions with which you are most familiar. Then think of your definition of a good human being. Do you think it is possible to adhere to the tenets of any religion exactly to the letter of the law and still remain at all times a "good" human being?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 157 )
Rating Distribution

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(119)

4 Star

(20)

3 Star

(7)

2 Star

(7)

1 Star

(4)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 157 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2008

    Don't buy the paperback ..... because

    it is so good that you will want to read it again and again through the years. One read and my paperback has fallen apart. I related well to the times and the characters could have been any number of friends from my past. I confess that on my visits this summer to the Beaufort/Fripp Isl area this summer I looked around wondering if some of my characters were around and when I saw the protected turtle nest areas I smiled. Obviously this book does not need my applause but I could not resist sharing my enthusiasm and advice. Thank you for giving me hours of escape and enjoyment Mr. Conroy!

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing

    I completely agree with the comment about getting the hardcover version of this book - my paperback copy is falling apart. Conroy's writing style is beautiful, the plot is engaging, and the characters are described in such depth, it's as if I was right there with them. Love this book!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2012

    highly recommended.

    very good read. hard to put down. Loved it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2011

    Terrific read!

    I am so glad a friend introduced me to Pat Conroy. Beach Music is every bit as good as South of Broad. Funny, poignant, sad, exhilarating. Deals with lots of controversial topics. Hate for it to end!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2011

    Amazing

    This was quite possibly the best book I have ever read. The characters seemed so real and I could completely relate to the family and the relationships between them all. Definitely a must read. The first chapter is beautiful-simply put.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2009

    EXCEPTIONAL BOOK

    This is one of the best works of fiction that I've ever read. Pat Conroy's use of the language is beautiful and very memorable. I've given this book as a gift many times and everyone is moved by the story. Buy the hardcover for your library as you will want to read this again and again. Buy several copies as you will want to share this with everyone! Don't forget to read his other books, too ! They are all exceptional. I can't wait until "South of Broad" is released.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 13, 2011

    Conroy an American Hero!

    I would recommend anything by Pat conroy & Beach Music is no exception! The story unfolds into story that touches your soul & doesn't let you go. If you have read or not read any of his other works this one will not disappoint you, a haunting story you can't put down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 25, 2011

    The Master of Southern Writing

    I truly believe that Pat Conroy is the master of southern writing. I have read all of his books and I have never been disappointed. Take time to read this book so you can absorb all the words and the characters. No one has a writing style like Pat Conroy. You won't be disappointed!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 20, 2011

    Makes a lasting impression

    This was the first novel by Pat Conroy that I read & it has stayed with me since then. The characters & locales come alive in a great tale of family, friendship, heartache, forgiveness & love. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 29, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    One of my new favorite authors

    I'm still not sure how I've managed to not read anything by Pat Conroy at this point in my life, but here I am having finished my first novel of his, Beach Music, and I now want to read every word he has ever put on paper. The characters were developed at a steady pace and the plots were very well thought out. As the book goes on and the characters backstories' are only eluded to and not fully described, I began to think everything would be wrapped up in a hurry with only a hint of real resolution. But while the ending was quick, it was plausable. You feel for the characters and what they went through. You forget it's a third party telling of the story and you begin to imagine yourself right there along with everyone else. It's a really fantastic read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Powerful reading

    Very intense and powerful emotions in this book. The characters have endured terrible tragedies but displayed the stregnth of the human spirit.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2008

    If I could take just one book...

    If I were to be stranded on an island and could take just one book, Beach Music is the one I would choose. Like others have expressed before me, I have read and reread Beach Music. Each time I discover something new. Conroy makes magic when he writes, and this is his best so far. Yes, Beach Music would be my one book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2007

    A reviewer

    Years ago, I tried to read Prince of Tides and was bothered by some of the subject matter. I was very young and it disturbed me. Since then, I have been hesitant to read any of Mr Conroy's other books. However, he is one of my boss's favorite authors so I thought I'd give him another try. AM I glad I did!!!! This book was sooooo good I didn't want to put it down. The characters are so richly described and the characterization of the South is perfect!!!! I would definitely recommend this book to everyone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2006

    Beautiful and very moving

    Pat Conroy uses beautiful diction throughout this novel. I enjoyed reading it and every page was never a waste of time. It's amazing how he combines all these different times without making the reader confused. He taught me a valuable lesson No matter how far you go, you can never escape family. He gives everybody hope and lets us all know that no matter what, we can allways look forward to a better tomorrow.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2006

    Awesome book - a wonderful experience!

    I enjoyed Prince of Tides years ago, and decided at that time to read more of Mr. Conroy's work... and Beach Music is absolutely excellent! I found myself rereading some parts occasionally to get the full effect of his beautiful descriptions. This book was enjoyable from beginning to end. The characters are so real, and the family dysfunction so true to form. At times I laughed out loud, at times I cried. Other times my mouth watered at his savory descriptions of food. I would recommend this book to anyone, and plan on buying a copy or two as gifts.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2003

    Southern Families - we all know some like this one.

    One of the best books I have ever read!!! I loved the family and all the crazy personalities. The family's unconditional love for one another through good and bad takes you through every emotion known. I laughed til I cried, and cried til my eyes were red. Pat Conroy continues to write books full of 'life'. This is a great read with a family worth knowing, a mother with incredible spirit - by the books end I wanted to be a member of this family. I have recommended this story many times & everyone loved it! The audio version is just as good. Enoy!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2014

    Easy read, got me hooked

    Not very far into it yet but easy read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2014

    A must read

    I loved this story so much, I traveled to the east coast and fell even more head over heels with the area and the book. Now I own this book in hard back, a real keeper.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2014

    To guys

    Go to hurricane res 2 for my bio and go to my friend last res if u wanna chat P.S im ariana and im single

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2014

    Musica

    Bbl

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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