If You've Never Read Anything By Pat Conroy, Here's The Book You Should Start With

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Born in 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia, master storyteller Pat Conroy spent his life writing novels and memoirs set in the south (via The New York Times). He told Southern Living, "You can't live in the south, move to the south, without having the south shape you."

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Conroy's official website notes that he was the eldest of seven children, and throughout his childhood, the family relocated repeatedly, whenever his fighter pilot father was posted to a new military base. Conroy's novels drew heavily on his experience growing up in the South with an abusive father. He confessed to Atlanta Magazine his habit of incorporating autobiographical details into his writing: "As my family always says, 'There will be one all-knowing, sensitive, wonderful person who will be the narrator, based on our brother Pat. And he will be surrounded by slimeballs.'"

In the 1980s, Conroy's novels regularly hit the bestseller lists alongside other popular names such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Jackie Collins, and Anne Rice. Several of his books were made into Hollywood movies, which greatly expanded the audience for his epic southern tales. Conroy died in 2016 at age 70 from pancreatic cancer, and fans still visit his grave today.

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Given the number of novels and memoirs that Conroy wrote during his lifetime, it can be hard to choose which one to read first.

Pat Conroy's best-known book is The Prince of Tides

"The Prince of Tides" rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists in 1986 and stayed there for almost a year, selling over 350,000 hardcover copies (per The New York Times). Eventually, more than 5 million copies were sold, according to The Guardian). Readers were moved by this tale of a southern man exploring his psychological trauma — his twin sister's suicide attempt, his brother's absence, his wife's affair, his own job loss — with a psychiatrist.

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Publishers Weekly described the novel as "a seductive narrative, told with bravado flourishes, portentous foreshadowing, sardonic humor and eloquent turns of phrase." It predicted readers would "be swept along by Conroy's felicitous, often poetic prose, his ironic comments on the nature of man and society, his passion for the marshland country of the South and his skill with narrative."

Others, however, panned the book as bloated, heavy-handed, and melodramatic, including legendary book reviewer Richard Eder. "Inside this fat book, a thin book is struggling to get out," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "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."

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"The Prince of Tides" became a movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand. Conroy received an Academy Award nomination for adapting the story for the screen, and the film scooped up six other Oscar nods, including for best picture.

His most autobiographical novel is The Great Santini

If you're still trying to decide the best entry point into Pat Conroy's oeuvre, "The Great Santini" is a strong choice. He based this 1976 novel on his childhood, coping with a physically and emotionally abusive military man as a parent.

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"We learn what it's like to grow up with a father who runs his family like a military unit, cannot bear to be defeated by his son at basketball, is casually racist, dreams only of higher rank, and closes down all family arguments by saying, 'The Great Santini has spoken,'" wrote feminist and political activist Gloria Steinem. "Conroy's descriptions convey the subtleties of military friendships based on competition and alcohol, of a boy who learns more from the son of his family's African American maid than from his own father, and of a wife whose life is governed by her husband's moods."

According to Conroy's official website, exposing his family's secrets in the book contributed to his parents' divorce as well as his own marital split. His memoir "The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son" explored how the novel's publication affected his family. He told WBUR, "I wanted to, at least in my own words, tell the story I think my family lived while I was here on Earth."

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"The Great Santini" was made into a film starring Robert Duvall. It received two Oscar nominations, including one for Duvall as the title character.

Pat Conroy wrote several other bestselling books

"The Prince of Tides" and "The Great Santini" are the Pat Conroy books that receive the most media attention, but anyone who likes reading stories set in the south should enjoy all of his novels and memoirs.

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Published in 1980, "The Lords of Discipline" drew upon Conroy's time as a student at The Citadel military college in Charleston. Bestselling author Nicholas Sparks was so enchanted by the novel that he chose it for The Wall Street Journal book club in 2016. Publishers Weekly succinctly summed up the novel's point, that there "exists a very dark side to obedience." In 1983, "The Lords of Discipline" was adapted into a film.

His culinary memoir "The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life" mixed recipes with personal stories about food, while "My Reading Life" focused on his love of books. In "My Losing Season," Conroy described his time playing basketball while at military college.

"I came from a family of great storytellers. And that is something about the South I think has been preserved," Conroy once said (per NPR). "What I hope is that I don't die before I can tell all the stories I still haven't told."

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