Bel Canto — Review by Carole

The bel canto technique in operatic singing focuses on perfect evenness of the voice and has its origins in an ancient vocal method. The late 19th century saw this style of opera reach its height. Bel canto singers of the last century included Maria Callas and Mario Lanza.

What do I know about opera? I know that my Italian grandfather adored it as did his father before him. They managed to go to the opera even during the Depression when money could have been used for other things, but maybe that was the point.

I know that my favorite Christmas music includes Mario Lanza singing "We Three Kings." That's about the extent of my knowledge of anything to do with bel canto or opera.

So, why would I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto? I have to admit that the appeal wasn't that strong. I picked it up after Chris gave it to me, and I put it down. I picked it up again and read a few pages — I couldn't get into it. I took it on a trip and only read a couple of chapters. But then it took up residence on my nightstand, amongst many others, and I finally picked it up again. This time, I resolved to finish it. I wanted to finish it before the year was over, and I succeeded.

It wasn't an easy read for me. It took me several days even though the length of the book was such that I should have been able to read it in a couple of sittings. But the pace of the book has an evenness to it that doesn't encourage speed. Maybe the book itself employs a bel canto technique.

Patchett uses one of my favorite literary devices — a group of disparate people, who — under normal circumstances — would never interact, are drawn together in an unusual circumstance. The action and drama ensue from that contact. In this case, Patchett devises a birthday party for an influential Japanese businessman in a South American country, whose people are trying to persuade him to open a factory there. To convince him to come to the party, they have invited his favorite opera singer to perform at the vice president's home. He cannot resist the private performance and he accepts.

The party is for a couple of hundred people, quite an international cast of characters. It is a huge success. But just as Roxane Coss ends her last note, armed gunman invade the residence. The terrorists are there to kidnap the president, but he is not there. With their carefully laid plan thwarted, they take everyone hostage.

The impasse that is reached between the negotiators and the terrorists force a prolonged captivity for all concerned. What follows is the development of the relationships between the terrorists and their hostages. You know that it is not going to end well — Patchett tells you that early on in the story. Who is released, who dies, who comes to care for whom are the reasons you keep on reading.

Patchett unfolds the characters' back stories in a way that reminded me of why I became so engrossed in the television show Lost. Learning who each character is, where they come from, and what role they are going to play in this particular setting kept me turning the pages, albeit slowly.

I could picture these people that Patchett had drawn for me, and I became involved in what happened to them. I wanted to learn how it all turned out. Ultimately, though, I just wasn't satisfied with the ending.

Maybe I just don't understand opera.


Chris said...

Oh, how disappointing! Having sorry endings is so unfair to the reader. Was it a cop-out, like in My Sister's Keeper, or just bad? (If you can tell without spoilers, of course....)

Carole said...

It wasn't as cheap an ending as the Lifetime Channel, Movie-of-the-Week ending in My Sister's Keeper, but Patchett takes the reader from Point A to Point Q very quickly at the end without any clues that Q is where we were heading, so she lost me.

I wish someone who does have an appreciation of opera and who has read Bel Canto would weigh in on what they thought of the story.

Chris said...

Well, any reader she keeps suspended for that long deserves better. I really enjoyed all of "The Magician's Assistant," which I read a few years ago, so hopefully it's not a Patchett Trend. I have "Run" in my nightstand stack, so I'll weigh in on that when I've read it.

Lynn said...

I recently read Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto" and loved it. So it was with much anticipation I started reading (non-fiction) "Truth & Beauty", Patchett's account of her friendship with fellow writer, Lucy Grealy. But by the time I put the book down last night, I just wanted to reach into the book and smack someone.

Lucy Grealy was a very, VERY needy person. Through no fault of her own, she had a horrible medical background, with over 30 surgeries beginning when she was a child. This would be difficult for anyone to bear without both physical and psychological scars. She had both in abundance. However, her constant queries of all her friends of "Do you love me?" , and her constant demands for reassurance and assistance for things she could very well have done herself really got on my nerves.

A review by People called the book "A loving testament to the work and reward of the best friendships, the kind where your arms can't distinguish burden from embrace." Having a friend like Patchett would be worth more than gold, but I maintain that it enabled Grealy to never be held accountable for her own actions, allowing her to a life set on self-destruct. Everything that happened to her was someone else's fault -- she never took the responsibility for any of her problems. This enabling is not a "testament......of the best friendships." It did her no favors.

Don't misunderstand me. Patchett's writing is wonderful. The pain and devotion she felt were well, and genuinely expressed. However, had I read this book first, I seriously doubt if I would be tempted to pick up another of her books. Because I liked "Bel Canto" so well, I will reserve my judgment until I have read another of her novels.