Spanning forty years, this is the story of turbulent Tom Wingo, his gifted and troubled twin sister, Savannah, and the dark and violent past of the extraordinary family to which they were born.
Filled with the vanishing beauty of the South Carolina lowcountry as well as the dusty glitter of New York City, The Prince Of Tides is Pat Conroy's most magnificent novel yet.
About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco and South Carolina
Date of Birth:October 26, 1945
Place of Birth:Atlanta, Georgia
Education:B.A.,The Citadel, 1967
Read an Excerpt
It was five o'clock in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time when the telephone rang in my house on Sullivans Island, South Carolina. My wife, Sallie, and I had just sat down for a drink on the porch overlooking Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic. Sallie went in to answer the telephone and I shouted, "Whoever it is, I'm not here."
"It's your mother," Sallie said, returning from the phone.
"Tell her I'm dead," I pleaded. "Please tell her I died last week and you've been too busy to call."
"Please speak to her. She says it's urgent."
"She always says it's urgent. It's never urgent when she says it's urgent."
"I think it's urgent this time. She's crying."
"When Mom cries, it's normal. I can't remember a day when she hasn't been crying."
"She's waiting, Tom."
As I rose to go to the phone, my wife said, "Be nice, Tom. You're never very nice when you talk to your mother."
"I hate my mother, Sallie," I explained. "Why do you try to kill the small pleasures I have in my life?"
"Just listen to Sallie and be very nice."
"If she says she wants to come over tonight, I'm going to divorce you, Sallie. Nothing personal, but it's you who's making me answer the phone."
"Hello, Mother dear," I said cheerfully into the receiver, knowing that my insincere bravado never fooled my mother.
"I've got some very bad news, Tom," my mother said.
"Since when did our family produce anything else, Mom?"
"This is verybad news. Tragic news."
"I can't wait to hear it."
"I don't want to tell you on the phone. May I come over?"
"If you want to."
"I want to only if you want me to come."
"You said you wanted to come. I didn't say I wanted you to come."
"Why do you want to hurt me at a time like this?"
"Mom, I don't know what kind of a time it is. You haven't told me what's wrong. I don't want to hurt you. Come on over and we can bare our fangs at each other for a little while."
I hung up the phone and screamed out at the top of my lungs, "Divorce!"
Waiting for my mother, I watched as my three daughters gathered shells on the beach in front of the house. They were ten, nine, and seven, two brown-haired girls divided by one blonde, and their ages and size and beauty always startled me; I could measure my own diminishment with their sunny ripening. You could believe in the birth of goddesses by watching the wind catch their hair and their small brown hands make sweet simultaneous gestures to brush the hair out of their eyes as their laughter broke with the surf. Jennifer called to the other two as she lifted a conch shell up to the light. I stood and walked over to the railing where I saw a neighbor who had stopped to talk to the girls.
"Mr. Brighton," I called, "could you make sure the girls are not smoking dope on the beach again?"
The girls looked up and, waving goodbye to Mr. Brighton, ran through the dunes and sea oats up to the house. They deposited their collection of shells on the table where my drink sat.
"Dad," Jennifer, the oldest, said, "you're always embarrassing us in front of people."
"We found a conch, Dad," Chandler, the youngest, squealed. "He's alive."
"It is alive," I said, turning the shell over. "We can have it for dinner tonight."
"Oh, gross, Dad," Lucy said. "Great meal. Conch."
"No," the smallest girl said. "I'll take it back to the beach and put it in the water. Think how scared that conch is hearing you say you want to eat him."
"Oh, Chandler," said Jennifer. "That's so ridiculous. Conchs don't speak English."
"How do you know, Jennifer?" Lucy challenged. "You don't know everything. You're not the queen of the whole world."
"Yeah," I agreed. "You're not the queen of the whole world."
"I wish I had two brothers," Jennifer said.
"And we wish we had an older brother," Lucy answered in the lovely fury of the blonde.
"Are you going to kill that ugly ol' conch, Dad?" Jennifer asked.
"Chandler will be mad."
"No, I'll take it back down to the beach. I can't take it when Chandler calls me a murderer. Everyone into Daddy's lap."
The three girls halfheartedly arranged their lovely, perfectly shaped behinds on my thighs and knees and I kissed each one of them on the throat and the nape of the neck.
"This is the last year we're going to be able to do this, girls. You're getting huge."
"Huge? I'm certainly not getting huge, Dad," Jennifer corrected.
"Call me Daddy."
"Only babies call their fathers Daddy."
"Then I'm not going to call you Daddy either," Chandler said.
"I like being called Daddy. It makes me feel adored. Girls, I want to ask you a question and I want you to answer with brutal honesty. Don't spare Daddy's feelings, just tell me what you think from the heart."
Jennifer rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, Dad, not this game again."
I said, "Who is the greatest human being you've encountered on this earth?"
"Mama," Lucy answered quickly, grinning at her father.
"Almost right," I replied. "Now let's try it again. Think of the most splendid, wonderful person you personally know. The answer should spring to your lips."
"You!" Chandler shouted.
"An angel. A pure, snow-white angel, and so smart. What do you want, Chandler? Money? Jewels? Furs? Stocks and bonds? Ask anything, darling, and your loving Daddy will get it for you."
"I don't want you to kill the conch."
"Kill the conch! I'm going to send this conch to college, set it up in business."
"Dad," Jennifer said, "we're getting too old for you to tease us like this. You're starting to embarrass us around our friends."
"That gum-snapping, pimple-popping, slack-jawed little cretin?"
"He's my boyfriend," Jennifer said proudly.
"He's a creep, Jennifer," Lucy added.
"He's a lot better than that midget you call a boyfriend," Jennifer shot back.
"I've warned you about boys, girls. They're all disgusting, filthy-minded, savage little reprobates who do nasty things like pee on bushes and pick their noses."
"You were a little boy once," Lucy said.
"Ha! Can you imagine Dad as a little boy?" Jennifer said. "What a laugh."
"I was different. I was a prince. A moonbeam. But I'm not going to interfere with your love life, Jennifer. You know me, I'm not going to be one of those tiresome fathers who're never satisfied with guys his daughters bring home. I'm not going to interfere. It's your choice and your life. You can marry anyone you want to, girls, as soon as y'all finish medical school."
"I don't want to go to medical school," said Lucy. "Do you know that Mama has to put her fingers up people's behinds? I want to be a poet, like Savannah."
"Ah, marriage after your first book of poems is published. I'll compromise. I'm not a hard man."
"I can get married anytime I want to," Lucy said stubbornly. "I won't have to ask your permission. I'll be a grown-up woman."
"That's the spirit, Lucy," I applauded. "Don't listen to a thing your parents say. That's the only rule of life I want you to be sure and follow."
"You don't mean that. You're just talking, Daddy," Chandler said, leaning her head back under my chin. "I mean Dad," she corrected herself.
"Remember what I told you. Nobody told me this kind of stuff when I was a kid," I said seriously, "but parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It's one of God's most important laws. Now listen to me. Your job is to make me and Mama believe that you're doing and thinking everything we want you to. But you're really not. You're thinking your own thoughts and going out on secret missions. Because Mama and I are screwing you up."
"How are you screwing us up?" Jennifer asked.
"He embarrasses us in front of our friends," Lucy suggested.
"I do not. But I know we're screwing you up a little bit every day. If we knew how we were doing it, we'd stop. We wouldn't do it ever again, because we adore you. But we're parents and we can't help it. It's our job to screw you up. Do you understand?"
"No," they agreed in a simultaneous chorus.
"Good," I said, taking a sip of my drink. "You're not supposed to understand us. We're your enemies. You're supposed to wage guerrilla warfare against us."
"We're not gorillas," Lucy said primly. "We're little girls."
Sallie returned to the porch, wearing an off-white sundress and sandals to match. Her long legs were tanned and pretty.
"Did I interrupt the complete lectures of Dr. Spock?" she said, smiling at the children.
"Dad told us we were gorillas," explained Chandler, removing herself from my lap and mounting her mother's.
"I cleaned up some for your mother," Sallie said, lighting a cigarette.
"You'll die of cancer if you keep smoking that, Mama," Jennifer said. "You'll choke on your own blood. We learned that at school."
"No more school for you," Sallie said, exhaling.
"Why'd you clean up?" I asked.
"Because I hate the way she looks at my house when she comes over. She always looks like she wants to innoculate the children for typhus when she sees the mess in the kitchen."
"She's just jealous that you're a doctor and she peaked out after winning a spelling bee in third grade. So you don't need to clean up everytime she comes over to spread plague. You just need to burn the furniture and spray with disinfectant when she leaves."
"You're a bit hard on your mother, Tom. She's trying to be a good mother again, in her own way," Sallie said, studying Chandler's hair.
Jennifer said, "Why don't you like Grandma, Dad?"
"Who says I don't like Grandma?"
Lucy added, "Yeah, Dad, why do you always scream out 'I'm not here' when she calls on the phone?"
"It's a protective device, sweetheart. Do you know how a blowfish puffs up when there's danger? Well, it's the same thing when Grandma calls. I puff up and shout that I'm not here. It would work great except that your mother always betrays me."
"Why don't you want her to know you're here, Daddy?" Chandler asked.
"Because then I have to talk to her. And when I talk to her it reminds me of being a child and I hated my childhood. I'd rather have been a blowfish."
Lucy asked, "Will we shout 'I'm not here' when you call us when we're all grown up?"
"Of course," I said with more vehemence than I intended. "Because then I'll be making you feel bad by saying, 'Why don't I ever see you, dear?' or 'Have I done something wrong, darling?' or 'My birthday was last Thursday,' or 'I'm having a heart transplant next Tuesday. I'm sure you don't care,' or 'Could you at least come over and dust off the iron lung?' After you grow up and leave me, kids, my only duty in the world will be to make you feel guilty. I'll try to ruin your lives."
"Dad thinks he knows everything," Lucy said to Sallie, and two cooler heads nodded in agreement.
"What's this? Criticism from my own children? My own flesh and blood noticing flaws in my character? I can stand anything but criticism, Lucy."
"All our friends think Dad is crazy, Mama," Jennifer added. "You act like a mom is supposed to act. Dad doesn't act like other dads."
"Here it is. That dreaded moment when my children turn on me and rip my guts out. If this were Russia, they'd turn me in to the Communist authorities and I'd be in a Siberian salt mine, freezing my ass off."
"He said a bad word, Mama," Lucy said.
"Yes, dear. I heard."
"Grass," I said quickly. "The grass needs cutting."
"The grass always needs cutting when he says that word," Jennifer explained.
"At this very moment my mother is crossing the Shem Creek bridge. No birds sing on the planet when my mother is on her way."
"Just try to be nice, Tom," Sallie said in her maddening professional voice. "Don't let her get under your skin."
I groaned, drinking deeply. "My God, I wonder what she wants. She only comes here when she can ruin my life in some small way. She's a tactician of the ruined life. She could give seminars on the subject. She said she has some bad news. When my family has bad news, it's always something grisly, Biblical, lifted straight out of the Book of Job."
"At least admit your mother's trying to be your friend again."
"I admit it. She is trying," I said wearily. "I liked her better when she wasn't trying, when she was an unrepentant monster."
"What's for dinner tonight, Tom?" Sallie asked, changing the subject. "Something smells wonderful."
"That's fresh bread. I caught flounder off the rocks early this morning, so I stuffed them with crabmeat and shrimp. There's a fresh spinach salad plus sauteed zucchini and shallots."
"Wonderful," she said. "I shouldn't be drinking this. I'm on call tonight."
"I'd rather have fried chicken," Lucy said. "Let's go out to Colonel Sanders."
"Why do you cook anyway, Dad?" Jennifer asked suddenly. "Mr. Brighton laughs when he talks about your cooking dinner for Mama."
"Yeah," Lucy added, "he says it's because Mama makes twice as much money as you do."
"That rotten bastard," Sallie whispered between clenched teeth.
"That's not true," I said. "I do it because Mama makes four or five times more money than I do."
"Remember, girls, it was Daddy who put me through medical school. And don't hurt your father's feelings like that again, Lucy," Sallie warned. "You don't have to repeat everything Mr. Brighton says. Your father and I try to share the household chores."
"All the other mommies I know cook for their family," Jennifer said boldly, considering the bitter look that had entered Sallie's gray eyes. "Except you."
"I told you, Sallie," I said, studying Jennifer's hair. "If you raise children in the South, you produce southerners. And a southerner is one of God's natural fools."
"We're southern and we're not fools," said Sallie.
"Aberrations, dear. It happens once or twice every generation."
"Girls, go on upstairs and wash up. Lila is going to be here soon."
"Why doesn't she like us to call her Grandma?" Lucy asked.
"Because it makes her feel old. Run along now," Sallie said, moving the girls inside the house.
When she returned, Sallie leaned down and brushed her lips on my forehead. "I'm sorry Lucy said that. She's so goddamn conventional."
"It doesn't bother me, Sallie, I swear it doesn't. You know I adore the role of martyrdomhow I blossom in an atmosphere of self-pity. Poor nutless Tom Wingo, polishing the silver while his wife discovers a cure for cancer. Sad Tom Wingo making the perfect souffle while his wife knocks down a hundred grand a year. We knew this would happen, Sallie. We talked about it."
From the Audio Cassette edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. In the prologue Pat Conroy sets up many of the novel’s themes: his characters’ love of the Low Country and the South; the power Lila Wingo had over her children, who all adored her; their love of the natural world that shaped all three of their futures. In the midst of this idyllic piece of glorious signature Conroy writing, what signals does he give to his readers about the darkness that is to come in this novel?
2. The novel begins when Tom Wingo, a recently fired teacher and coach, married to a successful physician, and father of three, receives a call from his obviously manipulative mother asking him to go to New York to help his twin sister, Savannah, who has once again attempted suicide. His three young daughters had just expressed embarrassment that he, unlike their friends’ fathers, stays home and cooks meals while it is their mother who goes to work. What other event takes place before he leaves that makes him feel a failure, what he calls “a mediocre man”?
3. When Tom appears to be teasing his young daughters, he tells them that there is only one rule of life they must follow: “Never listen to what your parents say. Parents were put on earth for the sole purpose of making their children miserable. It is one of God’s most important laws. . . . Both Mama and I are screwing you up. If we knew how we were doing it we would stop because we adore you. But we’re parents and we can’t help it. . . . We are your enemies.” Are there any examples of good parenting in this novel that would argue against this warning?
4. Pat Conroy willingly admits that his novels are informed to a great degree by his life experiences. The Great Santini was about growing up as the son of a physically violent and abusive Marine fighter pilot. “I created a boy named Ben Meechum and gave him my story,” says Conroy. In The Lords of Discipline he took on his military college, The Citadel, in a book that resulted in a twenty-years-plus feud between the author and his school, which was only recently resolved. In writing The Prince of Tides Conroy attempts to come to terms with his childhood and with the realization that his mother may well have been the more powerful parent and the source behind the self-deception and family secrets that crippled her children. And yet he says in the novel, “In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness.” Do you believe him when he says this?
5. The Prince of Tides is filled with stories of transformation, for example, his father’s wartime conversion to Catholicism, his sister Savannah’s becoming a New Yorker. Can you name others?
6. The idea of twins has deep roots in literature, from Romulus and Remus in mythology, to Jacob and Esau in the Bible, to the twins in the more recent novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Can you think of other examples in literature? How are Tom and Savannah alike? How are they different?
7. When Tom first encounters Dr. Lowenstein, his sister’s psychiatrist, he is belligerent both to her and in his attitude toward the entire city of New York. Why, do you think, is he so suspicious? Do you feel she acted in the best interests of Savannah by involving her brother in her therapy? Tom is a teacher and Lowenstein is a psychoanalyst. In the end they help each other in ways they might never have predicted. Are the tools or the impulses that create teacher-coaches and therapists similar? How are they different? Does their relationship have anything to say about class issues? Give other examples of problems of communication brought about by class differences.
8. What psychological tools besides denial does Tom use to distance himself from pain?
9. Why, do you feel, does Pat Conroy use flashbacks throughout the novel? Do you find this technique helpful to you as a reader?
10. One might say that the truest example of integrity seems to be exemplified in the character of Luke, the older brother. Do you agree? Why or why not?
11. The natural world is clearly revered by Conroy. Can you find passages about nature that exemplify his power as a writer?
12. Give examples of how Pat Conroy uses animals to advance the plot.
13. Questions are raised regarding the price of gender throughout the novel. For instance, how does Lila treat Savannah differently from her sons? How does Savannah deal with the family’s secrets as opposed to the way her brothers deal with them?
14. Do you think there is such a thing as a southern novel? Is The Prince of Tides a southern novel? If so, what does that mean to you?
15. Who is the Prince of Tides?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've read a lot of books, and this one has always topped my list of favorites. There's something about the way that Pat Conroy writes that just draws me in (I even enjoyed "My Losing Season", and I have absolutely no interest in basketball) -- his descriptions can conjure up a place or a person in a way that makes you not just see what he's describing, but really KNOW it. I have South Carolina in my blood, and this book makes me feel that in a way that really shocked me the first time I read it. As other readers have said, this book is FAR better than the movie it inspired; it is an absolutely spellbinding piece of literature and one that you can't possibly forget. I am thrilled that it's now an eBook -- I plan to read it many more times on my nook! Pat Conroy is my all-time favorite author, and I truly feel that "The Prince of Tides" is his best.
I confess that the 5 stars I gave this book are because of the way it takes me back home - to the South Carolina Lowcountry. As a transplant to the NYC Metro Area, the novel's setting couldn't be more perfect for me. Tom Wingo is a bit crude, but his tales of home are enough to make me want to pack up the moving truck and move back to Charleston. Conroy does a good job of mixing stories of the past and present without treating the reader like a child who needs hand-holding. The transitions can be as abrupt as an errant thought, but also come at predictable moments. There is variety, humor, love and just about every other intense human emotion. P.S. - As usual, the book is MUCH BETTER than the movie.
THE absolute best reading I have enjoyed! I cried I smiled I laughed... thank-you for sharing your talent....I can still smell the ocean breeze...you made my crazy life growing up in our own madness feel like it's ok, keeping family secrets was nothing to be ashamed of, and for the first time in my life I felt true compassion and understanding... I felt safe....bless you
Conroy teases the reader's imagination with glimpses of madness and full views of the rational and emotional defense mechanisms that children and adults use to survive their circumstances. The book shows more than you want to see. Though the characters are always slightly larger than life, it is impossible to stop reading. Their stories are annoyingly interrupted and intersected, yet the sneaky familiarity of the themes of archetypal powerlessness, denial and retionalization demand attention. In the end . . . no, the end is for you to find. In fact, stop 30 pages before the end and imagine your own ending. Then peek again into this author's world.
With The Prince of Tides Conroy takes the reader through an incredible and eloquent journey through the passions and many turmoils of the Wingo family. The language employed by Conroy in describing the largely disturbing content of the novel brings a beautiy to his writing unparralled in modern times. This book is an absolute "must-read" for anyone with an appreciation for the English language. I strongly recommend this book. Man may wonder but God decides When to kill the Prince of Tides
A must read. This is one of the two best books ever written. Pat Conroy is a master storyteller! If you liked the movie, you will love this book.
I picked up this book primarily because Conroy is from South Carolina (my home state) and because I wanted to read it before seeing the movie. I was thoroughly impressed by his descriptions of the Carolina Lowcountry as well as the ways of southern life. Not only does he write of the beauty and appeal of small southern towns where life never changes but he also touches on the desire many young southerners carry with them through adolesence: to get away from the stereotypes and restraints in order to experience new things and ideas. This book is the perfect addition to any beach bag or bookshelf. The only thing I didn't like about it were the 20-page chapters! :)
Prince of Tides is everything American. You will find yourself crying, laughing, indignant and in awe that an American family can find itself so lost and aching. Pat Conroy is a bigger person than I am! I could never (and haven't ) forgiven a father who thrived on subjecting such pain and discord to family members. Pat Conroy is the fore-mentioned American Treasure.
This book has a compelling plot line showing the best and worst of human nature in a beautiful South Carolina natural setting. I could hardly put it down.
I hated Henry, Savannah, and Lila Wingo, Reese Newbury, Herbert Woodruff, and Monique. But I loved Tom Wingo and Susan Lowenstein and this novel. This novel covers the taboo subjects of rape, child abuse, and suicide attempts, and it does so unabashedly and with language and pitch-perfect storytelling ability that will literally tip over your emotional applecart. THE PRINCE OF TIDES peels back the curtains of the small-town, southern life, and it gives the reader a front row seat on shrimping and family loyalty, often taken to absurdist extremes. Almost anything is bad when taken to excess, and beating little kids followed by a flat-out denial that it ever happened takes awful to a whole new level. It's so bad that little children are told to never mention what happen, or pretend that it didn't happen. There's a word for that and irrational probably doesn't even begin to cover it. No matter how much you try to bury something, though, you eventually "come to a moment that we can't pretend isn't real." And this book is filled with several of those moments. This novel also highlights why I'll never live in New York City. I'm a southern gentleman at heart--referring to women as ma'am and ladies and opening doors--so if I were to live in The Big Apple, at some point I'd run into the feminist gestapo, during which I'd have my eyeballs poked out, my throat scratched, and I'd be pummeled to within an inch of my life all because I had the audacity to hold a door open for a lady. So I'll stick to my southern roots and say y'all come back now, ya hear. And if you like the south and enjoy going on an emotional roller-coaster ride, you'll certainly enjoy this novel. Robert Downs Author of Falling Immortality: Casey Holden, Private Investigator
This is the first time I have read a book by Pat Conroy! Wonderful book. I loved his writing, his choice of words, a beautiful and hearbreaking tale of this family. I cannot get enough.
I love Pat Conroy! He has an amazing ability to describe things vividly so you feel like you are there. All his books are about the South and the many layers of being a Southerner. Enjoy!
Pat Conroy is a marvelouse writer. He writes about the gentlest things then follow it up with horrors. He describes nature with the most beautiful, loving words, then change direction to describe the darkest of human nature. I envy his imagination and gift of words.
This man uses words the same eay Motzart used notes.
Magical (and I never use that word) ! Please do yourself a favor and read this touching and moving novel. Don't be put off because of the lame movie.
This is a rich and compelling read! Hard to put down and sad to find it over!
i was spellbound! i started this book on first day of a 7 day cruise, i finished it before we made our first port-of-call!
probably the best book I ever read! A thousand times better than the movie
This book is incredible! I will admit Savannah's self-mutilation frightened me and at first I thought she was going to die. This novel is an incredible read I could not put it down once I started it. I almost felt as though I was living within the book. I think that this is a must-read novel and one of Pat Conroy's best.
This is a wonderful book to read it is a page turner you just can't put it down. The author did a great job writing the book where you picture it in your mind it is like you can see what is going on when you are reading it. This book will touch you. This book is about family and helping people find themself.
Well, I've read this book 5 times now! My favorite English teacher in high school assigned this book in every one of her class. My brother, who is 2 years older than me, read it first and couldn't sing his praises loud enough. When it was my turn to read the book for class, I was amazed at Conroy's style of writing. Everything about this book touched me. The setting was so real that I could picture it in my mind, and the family interation really made me emotional at times. It's a great book, and I encourage others to enjoy it as well. Now, Conroy is one of my favorite authors, and I enjoy his books for personal reading out of my English literature classes in college.
This has to be my favorite book ever. I never wanted it to end. I loved every moment of it. The emotions throughout the whole book were extremely powerful, and I don't think I've ever cried harder in any other book. There was the perfect blending of humor and heart. An absolute MUST-read.
Honestly, I do not like any other Pat Conroy books. I found most to be overblown and pretentious. Others drab and boring. But this book, quite simply is one of my best loved and most revisited.Something in the language- the descriptions, the syntax... Yes, I am using poetry terms. I can't simply convey the rhythm and quality and sheer joy of reading this book.The Language... oh dear lord, help me. *fans self* Perhaps its the damaged child in me, but I love this book. LOVE IT.
A very painful reading but absolutely worthwhile. I love and hate the story at the same time, but when it was finished I couldn't stop thinking about it.