Book Review: Why The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy Isn’t Quite As Princely As I Remembered

Has a book that you read a long time ago ever become more and more revered in your mind as the years go by? Did you put it on a pedestal of perfection? When you revisited it later in life, has this book ever not lived up to the pedestal you put it on?

I tend to put all of Pat Conroy’s books that I read in high school on the highest of pedestals. I remember loving them beyond belief, but am now really vague on the details and certainly couldn’t tell you why I loved them so much.

So, I decided to reread at least one of my old Conroy favorites each year. Last year, The Great Santini and The Lords of Discipline both lived up to my memories of them. I even added The Lords of Discipline to my All-Time Favorites List. To put this in perspective, it’s the only book I’ve added to that list since I started this blog.

This year, it was The Prince of Tides‘ turn….

Southern FictionThe Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy, southern fiction
Released 1986
674 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary

When Tom Wingo’s twin sister, Savannah, tries to kill herself in New York City, he teams up with her psychiatrist to delve into the family’s tragic history in the South Carolina low country (Colleton, South Carolina). 

My Thoughts

For those of you that read my blog regularly, you know that Pat Conroy is one of my favorite authors and that I think his writing is as close to perfection as a human can get. I first read The Prince of Tides in high school and remember loving it. I think I saw the movie too, but I can’t really remember. This time around, I loved it a bit less than I remember. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a fantastic book. But I actually found a couple things that bothered me about it rather than thinking it was sheer perfection.

The princely perfection…

Conroy is the master of portraying the beauty and magic of the Carolina lowcountry and I think this is the book where he makes the lowcountry shine brightest. It seems almost surreal, a bit seductive, and certainly unlike any other place on earth. He colors the background with stories (i.e. a Miami aquarium’s hunt for Colleton’s local mascot, an albino porpoise, and the town’s campaign to save “Carolina Snow”) that make growing up there sound like any kid’s dream.

These are the quicksilver moments of my childhood […]. Irresistible and emblematic […]. There is a river, the town, my grandfather steering a boat through the channel, my sister fixed in that suspended rapture that she would later translate into her strongest poems, the metallic perfume of harvested oysters, the belling voices of children on the shore. When the white porpoise comes there is all this and transfiguration too.

Then he throws a story that is horrifying, sinister, and tragic on top of all this beauty. Not to mention, he pulls much of the horror from his own life and upbringing (mentally ill Savannah is based on his sister, Carol, who fell out with Conroy after this book’s publication).

Twins Tom and Savannah, and brother Luke are the children of an abusive shrimper and his calculating, social climbing wife. This general atmosphere is responsible for some of the damage to the Wingo children and a particular shocking incident accounts for the rest. Much of the book deals with Tom and Savannah trying to work out their resulting issues with the help of New York psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, and you learn the story of the Wingo family as Tom recounts it to her in hopes of helping Savannah recover from her latest suicide attempt.

I do not know, however, when my mother and father began their long, dispiriting war against each other. Most of their skirmishes were like games of ringolevio, with the souls of their children serving as the ruined captured flags in their campaigns of attrition.

Separately, the story of Luke is one of the strongest parts of the book and provided a “must finish this book tonight” type of ending.

The princely imperfection…

First, the thing I love most about Conroy is his writing style. He could tell virtually any story and I would love reading it because of the way he tells it. But, for the first time ever, I felt like parts of The Prince of Tides were overwritten in a pretentious and long-winded way.

When there were no roses to be thrown, she brought forward the disturbed angels of nightmare who sang the canticles of knives and the blue vulnerable veins in her pale wrists.

Second, I hate, hate, hate stories within stories. I think they disrupt the flow of the central narrative and cause the reader to lose momentum. And, Conroy included a whopper of a story within a story in this book. I wanted to beat him over the head with my Kindle and scream “you are far too good for this gimmick!” The story does have a valid purpose to the overall narrative (yay!), but it went on way too long and was chock full of talking animals (boo!). 

All in all, I still love The Prince of Tides, it’s just not the pure perfection that I remember. At close to 700 pages, it’s going on my Time to Kill (aka The Chunksters) List.

You May Also Like

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy
The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Kay wrote:

    I, too, read THE PRINCE OF TIDES so many years ago. Since it was published in 1986, I was a full-time working mother of a preschooler. Where did I get the time? I loved it then. And I don’t think I want to go back and reread it. I suspect that I would not love it as much. I did read SOUTH OF BROAD with a book group a few years ago and liked it fairly well. And I keep meaning to read BEACH MUSIC, but it really long. Enjoyed your analysis of your two reads of PRINCE OF TIDES.

    Posted 1.29.15 Reply
  2. Conroy’s Beach Music might be that book for me. I remember it as nearly a perfect story, yet it’s been twenty years since I read it. I’m almost afraid of a reread at this point.

    Posted 1.29.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      That’s my next one due for a reread. Will probably tackle it at the beginning of 2016 since I try to do one Conroy reread per year.

      Posted 1.29.15 Reply
  3. Beach Music was definitely my fave; it was fun to read your review as a reminder of what this one was all about. I think it’s so interesting to reread a book in a different stage of life; our perspective is so much different, even on different days in the same year! I think it’s great that you went back to find out how you would respond to it today. Great review, Sarah!

    Posted 1.29.15 Reply
  4. Great post!~ I love to look back on books I’ve read and wonder why I loved them, or didn’t like them, back then.

    I only read The Water is Wide (and saw the tv movie, Conrack, based on it) and enjoyed that one very much, because I worked in education also. I saw The Prince of Tides movie, but though I like Streisand as a singer, I didn’t like her placement in that movie at all. I did love The Great Santini movie, and Robert Duvall in it. I guess I have seen Pat Conroy much more than I’ve read him, hmm.

    Glad you can look back and still enjoy a good author.

    Posted 1.29.15 Reply
    • Laurel wrote:

      As I recall, Streisand loved the The Prince if Tides, bought the rights, and arrogantly (wrongly) cast herself, to the movie’s detriment. Love this novel, have loaned my copy to so many people the binding is failing (who all professed to loving it too)!

      Posted 3.9.16 Reply
  5. The first thing that comes to mind when I hear of Prince of Tides is Nick Nolte and Barbara Streisand. I saw the movie first and loved it. Then I read the book, loved it, and then saw the movie over and over again. It was powerful fiction-based-on-fact for me — what we call an eye-opener. At the time, people didn’t talk about disfunctional families in “polite society” so it was a major change for me.

    Posted 1.30.15 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      That’s an interesting point about Conroy addressing something that really wasn’t spoken of in polite society..I read the book years after it was released, so times had changed a bit by then and I really didn’t think about it being a groundbreaking topic. But, I can see that adding another element of intrigue at the time of release. Regardless, it’s a totally unique book!

      Posted 1.30.15 Reply
  6. I hate to admit that I read The Prince of Tides in high school and hated it! Ever since then I’ve been leery about picking up any of his other books. Ironically I try to catch him every time he’s in Atlanta for an event ~ weird, I know. He’s so fascinating, down-to-earth and a joy to listen to as a speaker!

    Posted 1.30.15 Reply
  7. Kristen wrote:

    Just the idea of my favorite books not holding up to a second read makes me feel itchy. 😉 (And I rarely revisit them for just this fear.)

    Posted 2.1.15 Reply
  8. Patricia wrote:

    I liked the book, far superior to the movie. But I found parts of the book a bit unbelievable. The incident of the escaped convicts and how the mother covered it up was too fantastic to believe, but overall it’s a good book.

    Posted 7.15.16 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I agree there were parts that were unbelievable…the one that comes to mind for me is the white dolphin. But, I think I just put reality aside and enjoyed the story.

      Posted 7.15.16 Reply
  9. i just attempted the audiobook of THE PRINCE OF TIDES, which Conroy himself declared a narrative masterpiece. after three hours slogging through Tom Wingo’s interminable, unpleasant anger, i finally gave up and returned the book. the narrator spoke in a snarky staccato that annoyed me to no end, as well. i don’t often give up on a book — i try to finish them before judging them. but this one was too annoying to endure. first, i really despise Conroy’s writing style — i think he’s married to a seductive thesaurus who insists on feeding him WAY too many ways to say what’s what. the prose is so purple, it’s deep violet. i kept thinking of Billy Crystal in THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN and his despair at ever finding the right adjective for his opening sentence, “The night was …” before Anne Ramsey fed him “sultry” and drove him to attempted murder. he should’ve just phoned Conroy and talked to the man’s wife, the ever-so-generous thesaurus. i’ve lived in the South for over four decades, and i don’t love it — heck, i don’t even LIKE it! New York is where i’d rather stay; i get allergic smelling hay. yes, this tome was a hellish GREEN ACRES for me. no more Conroy in my xmas stockings, i can promise you that!

    Posted 9.28.17 Reply
  10. Greta wrote:

    I believe your experience of the story within the story as a “gimmick” is a result of your own “normal” childhood. Let me explain. Stories are everything! They make us healthy. They make us sick. They give us meaning to life. They craft our behavior, depending upon the story we tell ourselves. Traumatic stories carve into our souls and put parts of it in the closet, hiding for years, to render us emotionally stunted. When the story brought shame, we can seek to kill that shame through suicide. I fully expected their to be a big back story to the present day dysfunction in this novel. Also, we have since learned so much about stuffing SHAME so that we don’t feel it. When something we are unable to process happens to us young, it will stay with us. Trauma/Shame is a time traveler that will never leave us along until we pay attention to it. Until we do, it will cause present day dysfunction/disruption in our capacity to bond and relate in healthy ways. Shame stunts our creativity, blunts our flexibility and capacity to love, etc. Men being raped is one of the most muffled statistics on the planet; it is demasculating and decreases the sex drive. I know two straight men who were raped as children. Until they went to therapy, and released that shame. And cried. They never would have been whole. That book helped a lot of men who lived through that “gimmick” as young boys to cope in life. A semblance of their story was told.

    Posted 10.22.19 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’m not sure we’re talking about the same “story within the story”. I think what you’re referring to is not a “story within the story” but something that actually did happen in the Wingo children’s youth. I wouldn’t consider that to be a “story within a story.”

      Also – My childhood was not what most people would consider normal and included more than 1 extremely traumatic experiences. I’m happy to share with you offline, but I’m not going to go into details in this public forum.

      Posted 10.25.19 Reply

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive all new blog posts in one weekly email. Plus, news of special updates and offers!

You have Successfully Subscribed!