I first read this book almost 25 years ago shortly after its publication and, even then as a teenager, it impressed itself so strongly on me that it has remained my favourite book of all time, to which I regularly return to reread again.
This is a book for anyone who has ever had issues with their own families and wondered what it would have been like if they had been born into another. It is a tale for those that have wondered at the eccentricities of a mother or father, or a somewhat off kilter sibling and contemplated the origins of what might have made them that way.
It is a study of the impact of history on a family and how they can survive or fall apart based on the cards that they are dealt and how they choose to deal with them.
And it is a great narrative of mid 20th century American life which was so striking that, years later it led me on a personal pilgrimage to various places referenced which Conroy so lovingly and first-handedly portrays in his novel.
The Prince of Tides is the biography of the Wingo's, a family of passionate outsiders surviving on the sea islands of North Carolina in a fictional town called Colleton, well removed from the sophistication of distant city of Savannah or even the New York that both Savannah and her twin Tom, the narrator of the story, both eventually end up in.
The prince of tides of the title is also a reference to Luke, the only other sibling and older brother of Tom and Savannah and the hero of the story.
The novel spans a time line stretching from the 1930's to the 1980's and straddling both the Second World War and the Vietnam war and portraying the major impact that both these events brought to bear on one American family. It follows the lives of Tom's parents Lila and Henry Wingo and even of Henry parents and how their collective experiences formed and impacted on Tom and Savannah and Luke from childhood into adulthood, creating Savannah into a poet, Tom into a school teacher and coach and Luke into a shrimp fisherman and decorated war hero.
This is a book of, at times, such harrowing tragedy and pain that it sometimes will leave you sobbing and breathless. However it is ultimately a book of redemption and recovery and reconciliation also and in that it gives you hope that even from that darkest of times can emerge beauty and reason and the will to go on to better things and times that will inevitably come.
Finally, up to now I've avoided making reference to the film adaption of the book because it was so disappointing and not a very reflective rendering of the story. However I would say if you are contemplating avoiding the book merely on the basis that you weren't impressed by the film, I say read this book, if only to find out who the Prince of Tides, the heroic Luke Wingo was. His tale will both break and gladden your heart.