When Houghton Mifflin first published The Prince of Tides in the fall of 1986, the hardcover book hit the bestseller list and held its ground for almost a year. Pat Conroy's agent Nan Talese left Houghton Mifflin
for Doubleday the following year, and Conroy wasn't far behind. The publishing company that Conroy once referred to as "family" on the dedication page of The Prince would never have the opportunity to print the paperback version of his most successful b
ook. Doubleday's paperback edition rivaled the performance of the hardcover on the bestseller list, boasting of almost a year on the charts in its own right.
The Prince of Tides met with mixed reactions from critics. Many criticized Pat Conroy's use of exaggerated plot but still admitted to enjoying the book overall. As Kyle Kulish of United Press International said, the novel "becomes a story that is hard t
o put down." And that is true. Even though the tales seem unbelievable -- escaped convicts rape a family, an idealist steals an albino porpoise from an aquarium, and vengeful children put a loggerhead turtle in the bed of their mother's arch nemesis ? t
he book captivates its readers. No doubt, the shenanigans are definitely endless.
But what makes the average reader plow through page after page of melodrama? In part, it is due to The Prince being semi-autobiographical. Conroy created Lila, the mother at the heart of the Wingo family saga, in the image of his own mother. In The Pri
nce, the beautiful Lila allows her superficial desire to belong to society dictate her life. She leads a selfish existence, placing her love for her children second to her love for society. It's as if the audience is looking through a window into Conroy
's life. The voyeur in us cannot resist. In an interview, Conroy said all his characters begin with something from his past:
?I was raised by one of the most beautiful, Machiavellian and craftiest women ever to come out of the South, a woman who had a family history she continuously lied about. My mother was the first fiction writer in the family. She made up her history as sh
e went along and it was always very difficult to tell with mom what was real and what was not real (http://www.bdd.com/)
In an article for the United Press International on October 20, 1986, Jim Lewis relayed a conversation Conroy had with his mother who was dying of cancer:
"?Son, am I in your new book?'
?No,' I said.
?You're lyin',' she said.
?Okay, Mom, you're in the new book.'"
At this admission, she asked one favor from her son: "Make me beautiful.'
And Conroy paints such a detailed picture of the South that the reader can't help but feel there is much truth to this fiction. He offers insight about surviving childhood and realizations about the meaning of life as if he is writing in a journal, makin
g The Prince more personal than commercial. Conroy narrates his novel in the first person from the perspective of the main character, Tom Wingo. It is this technique that R.Z. Shepherd of TIME calls "first person portentous." The narrator tells the sto
ry with the benefit of hindsight, but there are times when he takes the reader back to the actual moments of his childhood. The narrator interjects during some of these memories with such comments as "I have tried to understand women, and this obsession
has left me both enraged and ridiculous" (94). It seems a little strange that Tom Wingo's recollection of his memories is interrupted with insight. There are no quotes around this statement in the text, as there should be if he is saying this to his sis
ter's psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein.
Conroy takes the reader on a journey through a tortured soul. And he "ultimately affirms life, hope, and the belief that one's future need not be contaminated by a monstrous past" (Chicago Tribune 19 Oct. 1986). While most people can't relate to Tom Wi
ngo's account of family brutality, they can still benefit from The Prince's general message: "In families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness."
As one would expect the book evoked different reactions from reviewers. Judy Bass of The Chicago Tribune said at first, "the Wingos' biography sounds deceptively benign." But what seemed to redeem the book for her was its coverage of "the most prostrati
ng crises in human experience ? death of a loved one, parental brutality, injustice, insanity ? without lapsing into pedantry or oppressive gloom." She was most impressed with the humor she claimed underscored the text. Upon reading the novel, however,
I found much of what she must have interpreted as humor to be bitter sarcasm. Perhaps, this is just a difference of perspective. Bass said Conroy wrote with a "compassion and integrity every reader will savor." For a moment, she sounded like Conroy who
se writing sometimes seems like a restaurant review with its descriptions of food and eating experiences in The Prince.
Richard Eder of The Los Angeles Times could barely reach a conclusion about his feelings toward the book. He confidently remarked that "inside this fat book, a thin book is struggling to get out. It never does?" But he followed this harsh statement wit
h praise for the same quality Bass appreciated in The Prince ? compassion. Eder would agree with Conroy's admission that The Prince is overdone: "Inflation is the order of the day. The characters do too much, feel too much, suffer too much, eat too much
, signify too much and above all, talk too much. And, as with the classical American tomato, quantity is at the expense of quality ? Repeatedly, Conroy will bring off a well-told episode and then smother it." Oddly enough, the tone of Eder's review sugg
ested that he fought a strong inclination to just enjoy The Prince despite its overwhelming plot.
Gail Godwin of The New York Times admired the book for its "ambition, invention, and sheer energy." But she warned readers that some may be turned off by the "turgid, high-flown rhetoric" of The Prince. While she doesn't deny Conroy's possession of "ang
uished ambivalence and excessiveness," she concludes that he is a "smart man." She assumes his worst tendencies overpowered him, calling The Prince "embroidered, sentimental, inexact."
There are also those critics who approached The Prince of Tides with skepticism for no other reason than Conroy's affinity for similar elements in his books. Brigitte Weeks of The Washington Post said she knew from the very first page of The Prince that
she was in "Conroy country" from the description of the violent father. She seemed to feel that Conroy simply reworked the entire slew of characters in The Prince from his previous novels. But she asserted that the pleasure of reading the novel far outw
eighed the flaws it presented its audience: "one can brush aside its lapses like troublesome flies." Perhaps Weeks best defines Conroy when she labels him a storyteller, for therein lies much of his attraction to readers. Many of Tom Wingo's childhood m
emories seem more like campfire material meant to shock and incite reaction rather than constitute part of a literary masterpiece.
When Conroy's most recent novel Beach Music hit the shelves in 1995, critics everywhere used The Prince of Tides as the standard by which to judge it. The Boston Globe's Gail Caldwell declared "Beach Music is not as good a novel as its predecessor, The P
rince of Tides" (25 Jun 1995). But others like Judith Dunford of The Chicago Tribune felt Conroy returned to his success-making trademark in Beach Music by showing his audience "exactly what it feels, smells, tastes, and , above all, smarts like" (16 Jun
After the publication of The Prince, the public became enthralled by Pat Conroy. He said he sometimes regrets having said his works were based on truth because most writers stick to what they know. He said people will meet his father on the street and t
ell him they thought he was dead, for he died in The Great Santini.
With the rise in popularity of sensational talk shows and journalists struggling to outdo the outrageousness of their competitors, it's no wonder that The Prince, a book that even Conroy describes as "overdone," enjoyed such lasting popularity. It has so
ld five million copies.
In 1991, Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand starred in the movie version of The Prince. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The release of the movie made both hardcover and paperback sales of the book surge once again. In Landon C. Burns' Pa
t Conroy: A Critical Companion, he said that moviegoers were recommending the book to their neighbors as the credits for the movie glided across the screen.
Hopper Leigh reported for The Houston Post in November of 1992 that The Prince of Tides was one of President Bill Clinton's favorite books, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude.
His novel even inspired songwriter Jimmy Buffet to write a song based on the The Prince and carrying the same name.
Landon C. Burns groups The Prince with such works as William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, Reynolds Price's The Surface of Earth, Carson McCuller's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. For Burns, Conroy writes in the tradition of William Faulkner, "Flannery O'Co
nnor, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren."
Following publication on The Prince, Conroy became involved in a case between a Charleston high school teacher and Reverend R. Elton Johnson, Jr. Johnson disagreed with Fitzgerald's assignment of The Prince as optional reading for her Advanced Placement
English class of eleventh graders. He demanded that the Charleston School Board require Fitzgerald to take The Prince off her reading list. Conroy wanted to show his support for Fitzgerald. He visited her classroom to talk about fiction writing. In th
e end, the Board said teachers could assign "suitable" texts for their students (Burns 10).