Years ago, ending a marriage and needing a place to live, I moved in with my mother and stepfather. I brought with me my almost-three-year old daughter, several bags of clothing, and some toys. Everything else, including the possessions that meant the most to me — my books and my father’s paintings — I left behind. I didn’t care, at the time, about those things. I thought I would get them later, and, anyway, as for the books, I hadn’t had the energy — or desire — to read anything for more than a year.
Had I known at the time how difficult the coming three years would be, I probably would’ve crawled into bed and not come out from under the covers. But I didn’t have the gift of foresight, and so, I was relatively happy. My mother and her husband, Jim, were amazingly supportive: they doted on their granddaughter, they doted on me. The house was full of love, good food, music, and books. It was free of tension, and anger, and disappointment. For the first time in months, I slept well. And I fell in love with reading again.
There were bookshelves in the living room, music studio, home office, and two bedrooms. But I wasn’t interested in any of the books on those shelves. I wanted to read the book lying on the coffee table in the living room. The one my mother was reading and oohing and aahing over. The one that the moment she put it down, Jim picked up and read. The one he didn’t want to give back to her. The one they were both trying to read at the same time: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. And so, when I came into the living room one night and spotted it, alone, waiting for me, I picked it up and read, “My wound is geography.” And I was pulled in. Who wouldn’t be pulled in by a sentence like that?
I don’t know how long it took the three of us to read the book that way — reading almost in tandem, you might say, having late night conversations about the story, the characters, the versatility of dog food — but I do know that by the time we had all finished the novel the covers were bent and the pages creased and worn, the book well-loved like the Velveteen Rabbit.
I don’t know what book I read next, nor what book followed that. It would be a long time before I would read something that would affect me the way The Prince of Tides did. But I was reading again, and that was what mattered.
I read that Pat Conroy also wrote My Reading Life, “a slim paean to the books and book people that have shaped his life” (Publisher’s Weekly). If I were to write such a book, I would have to include an ode to The Prince of Tides, a book that brought me back to reading, allowed me to escape some of the pain I was experiencing at that time, and helped to strengthen the bonds between me and the two wonderful people who took me in when my daughter and I needed a home.