September 2, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

A few weeks ago, I was wandering around Mom and Dad's house, looking for a good book to read. Mom threw this across the living room to me and told me to read it because it was one of the best books of the last 10 years. Or so she had heard. She hadn't read it, since it came out during her college phase, when life was too full of work, housework, and a full time college load to read books. 

There is some sort of character flaw in me that I become prejudiced against things I hear too much praise about. I don't dislike it, but I typically refuse to gush praise even if I feel it is warranted. Yankee contrariness or something. So hearing that it is one of the best books of the last ten years gets my guard up. Over-hyped starts flashing in my brain. Then I open the book and there are two and a half pages of praise for this book. I mean GUSHING praise. Just for example

"The story is riveting, the participants breathe and feel and are alive, and throughout this elegantly told novel, music pours forth so splendidly that the reader hears it and is overwhelmed by its beauty. " Lloyd Moss WXQR

I mean really. And then, hidden amongst this gushing is 

"Bel Canto is certainly pleasurable to read." Newsday

Obviously that reviewer wasn't into gushing or was taking a vacation and didn't actually read the book, but wanted to go along with everyone else's favorable opinions. 

So I read it. But cautiously. 

It takes place in Central/South America in the "host" country. The country is never given a name, probably for logical reasons. An extravagant party has been planned for a Japanese business man's birthday to try and persuade him to invest in the host country's economy. The only reason he came is because they made a point of having his favorite opera singer, Roxanne Coss, there. Into this party come tromping a band of terrorists who are dead set on kidnapping the president of the country and being headed into the jungle in 7 minutes. Except the president, who is a devoted fan of soap opera, decided to cancel at the last minute to watch his favorite soap star escape from her week long situation of being tied up. The terrorists don't really know what to do and decide to improvise by holding the entire household of party goers (190 people, plus servants) hostage. Eventually the terrorists make everyone lie down, so it is easier to keep track of them. Love these quotes.

"Scattered across the floor like area rugs lay some important men and women and a few extremely important men and women....The women who believed this would all be over shortly and they would be home in their own beds by two A.M. were careful to adjust their full skirts beneath them in a way that would minimize wrinkling." 

The women (except the opera singer) and servants were released the next morning to uncomplicate things a little for the terrorists, who viewed the hostages as annoying children, wanting to go the bathroom, needing a drink, feeling hungry. Due to the government refusing to compromise with them, the situation drags on for more than three months. Only one man dies, from a diabetic coma. Otherwise they live together for three months with the opera singer practicing and entertaining them everyday. Over the course of the three months, the terrorists become lax, allowing the hostages a great deal of freedom. The vice president becomes housekeeper extraordinaire, a Japanese businessman becomes an  accompanist for the opera singer, men declare their love for the opera singer, and one man falls in love with one of the terrorists, who happens to be a girl. People get to know each other through the mix of different languages and cultures and the terrorists become human, even likable. 

At the end, when the government storms the house and chaos ensues, your heart is with some of the terrorists. Obviously there was no way the book could end perfectly, when you pity and like the terrorists. There was talent and kindness and hopelessness in the terrorists that surprised me. In a different situation, these terrorists (mostly teenagers from deep in the jungle) could have done so much with their lives. As it was, they were fascinated by this luxurious house they were now living in. Telephones, televisions, food, bathrooms, beds..... things they had heard of, but never experienced. 

This book is lyrical. And that reviewer was right. Music does pour forth. Another reviewed said

"The author has taken what could have been a variation on The Lord of the Flies scenario and fashions instead a Lord of the butterflies, a dreamlike fable in which the impulses toward beauty and love are shown to be as irrepressible as the instincts for violence and destruction." New York Magazine

And that was the most accurately descriptive review. Everyone in this book, including the terrorists, became a little better, kinder, more gentle, more patient, and more open to beauty during this experience

The ending is bittersweet. I left this book with an overwhelming feeling of the futility and stupidity of most human plans. There was so much potential in the lives of the terrorists that was wasted. However, it was potential they wouldn't have understood or known they had if they had not gone through this experience. 

I was left wondering what happened to the other hostages. People who had changed their lives in this house--what did they do when they left? I feel like the author could have gone into that a bit more, but it may have detracted from the poignancy I felt as I shut the book. 

There was also one part that seemed discordant. I only noticed swearing once in this book. And it jarred me. It just didn't seem necessary or to further the plot in anyway. But maybe that is just my prudish self saying that. 

All in all, you should read this book if you haven't read it already. I refuse to gush, but I enjoyed reading this book. It is a gentle, tender, and quietly funny book. 


Virginia said...

Yeah, I tend to revolt against books that hit the big time, like The Help. It wasn't THAT great. But if you're willing to say you enjoyed this one, it's on my To Read list!

Verity Earl said...

I generally skip over the reviews because all they ever do is gush. It's like, I've already got the book in my hands, I'm obviously going to read it. Don't try to tell me how to feel about it! I also have a hard time being nice about somewhat mediocre writing. My book review was rather scathing I thought, though in reality it wasn't an awful book. I am just really harsh on writing.

But this does sound really good. I will add it to my to-read list.

P.S. I really loved The Help. But a friend recommended it to me BEFORE all the hype and movie contract, so that might have something to do with it.

Evan and Clover and Co. said...

WHY, when I finally have my pile of library books down to a manageable height, do you tell me to read a good book? But, being a sucker for book recommendations, I will read it.