The Prince of Tides begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue that frame this three-generational family saga. The story’s opening setting is located in the deceptively placid marshland and coastal islands near the fictional town of Colleton, South Carolina. The pace of this long, complex novel at times moves as slowly as the gradual ebb of the tides in the sleepy, rural South. At other times, especially when the setting shifts to New York City, the story’s pace is punctuated with the frantic and relentless recollections of the violence and calamities that have tainted and tortured the Wingo family.
Tom Wingo, the first-person narrator of the Wingo family history, is the family’s voice. In contrast to his older brother, Luke, and his twin sister, Savannah, Tom has survived childhood and adolescence traumas of emotional and physical parental abuse. A college graduate and churchgoing citizen, he appears to be the sole member to escape the inherent madness of his family lineage.
Tom introduces his parents, whose lives have been interrupted and scarred by poverty, family separations during World War II, and cycles of family dysfunction. His father, a shrimp boat operator whom Tom maintains would have been a splendid father had it not been for his violent treatment of his wife and children, was himself abused as a child. Tom describes his mother as a beautiful woman, talented at weaving words descriptive of natural beauty, but mum about a host of horrific family secrets.
The first chapter of this pain-filled family memoir begins like a Greek epic, in the middle of things, with a phone call to Tom from his mother. Savannah, who fled the family chaos and sought refuge and family anonymity in New York City immediately after her high school graduation, has attempted suicide and is hospitalized in Manhattan. Lila, Tom’s mother, prevails upon her son to go to the rescue of his troubled sister. The subsequent chapters of the book leapfrog back and forth from this present summer in New York and the past of the Wingo siblings’ tormented childhood as Tom, with the assistance of his sister’s psychiatrist, begins to reconstruct the family history in search of the demons that have twisted Savannah’s mind.
In one of the novel’s early flashbacks, Tom and his older brother visit their sister in her new home of New York City, where they are introduced to Savannah’s childhood demons, which she has failed to leave in her birthplace. This encounter further defines the characters in their young adult period. In a social Darwinian fashion, Savannah is selected as the family’s psychotic scapegoat, burdened with the emotional pain and paralysis of the family secrets. Luke, their older brother, is selected to play the role of the lost child, a courageous and simple person destined to bear the brunt of the family damage. The role that Tom was destined to assume was the family hero, the consummate people pleaser, who as a teacher and coach in his own high school salvaged his family’s respectability while unknowingly preserving the family secrets.
Like layers peeled from an onion, the family secrets are painfully revealed in each of the following chapters as Tom begins to reconstruct the Wingo family history. With a relentless and irresistible momentum, the saga of brutal secrets is examined and one after another of the demons that have tormented the family psyche are revealed, named, and discarded. Each new revelation provides another puzzle part that explains the complex passions, motivations, and calamities of the Wingo family.
Intervening subplots collectively demonstrate the impact of these discovered secrets on Tom’s self-understanding. When Luke’s political protest over the construction of a nuclear materials plant on the local river boils over into violence, Tom tries to intervene and end his brother’s insane...
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