November 20, 2007

Bel Canto

After recently reading Booklogged's reviews for Bel Canto and Birds in Fall, I decided to dig out my reading journal for 2004 and post the following review. This is more a compilation of reading journal/online book group discussion notes than my normal review format. Please excuse the less-than-polished (read: repetitive) style.

My review for
Birds In Fall can be found here. Look for a review for Blindness in the coming days.

Bel Canto by Anne Patchett
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 3/13/04
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent)
Top Ten 2004

Book Description

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening -- until a band of gunwielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

Definitely the best book I've read this year [2004]! Every chance I got, I wanted to read it, yet as the final pages drew closer, I had to put it down so as to savor the finale. Not a lot happens in this very internalized novel, yet I didn't find it slow or boring. I actually found myself reading more slowly than usual, luxuriating in each and every sentence.

In spite of Patchett's characterization, I pictured Roxanne Coss, the soprano, as a brunette much like John Singer Sargent's "Madame X." I found the chess games symbolic of the stalemate between the terrorists and the government. Amazing interactions between the terrorists (who weren't violent, angry men) and the hostages (who seemed to accept their fate with complacency). Simply a lovely book. Beautifully evocative prose. I was quite surprised, as I was expecting something less tender. Very thought provoking, reminding me of my reaction to Jose Saramago's Blindness. I highly recommend Bel Canto and look forward to reading more by Patchett.

I have to say this book surprised the heck out of me. I don't know what I was expecting, but it turned out to be a great read. I think the minute I heard that it was about terrorists and hostages, I instantly decided it wouldn't be anything I'd be interested in. But those two words really are a poor way of describing the book. It's more about humanity and what takes place when two very different groups of individuals are forced together for a lengthy period of time. I thought it was extremely well-written and quite moving. I held my breath as I read the last pages and found myself crying and couldn't start in on another book for a good hour. I think I knew how it would end (had completely forgotten about the revelation at the beginning - to be honest, I think I missed it, as I have no recollection of the spoiler!), but I kept hoping there'd be a happy ending somehow. Not unlike the hostages, I suppose.

I am so sorry I didn't read Bel Canto last year when my city read it for one of their "One Read" selections. I know I would've thoroughly enjoyed going to many of the discussions since it's one of those books that one could talk about for days. What a gem! Pardon the cliche, but I didn't want it to end, yet couldn't put it down. I only had a couple of dozen pages left to read on Sunday, but I found myself reading two or three pages, then setting it aside to both ponder what I'd read as well as prolong the inevitable of finishing.

I think I'm in the minority, but this is a book I will highly recommend. Not a lot happens, as it's a very internal story, but like Gail Tsukiyama's The Samurai's Garden, I enjoyed the pace which actually forced me to read more slowly, savoring each and every sentence, even going back to re-read some if I found myself not giving it 100% of my attention. I came to care about all the characters and I know they'll stay with me in the weeks to come.

And as with Ian McEwan's Atonement (which I absolutely loved), I'm shocked that others were disappointed with this remarkable novel. I know everyone has their own reading tastes, but it always surprises me when I feel a personal sadness/frustration/disbelief when others don't share my enthusiasm for a great book.

Patchett states in an interview:

Also, the narrative structure in this book is much more ambitious. I've always wanted to write a book with a truly omniscient narrative voice that switched easily from character to character. It's the thing I'm most proud of in this book and the thing that probably no one will notice.

I noticed!! I kept thinking how marvelous is was to go from one character's thoughts and actions to another's. The narration reminded me of a beautiful tapestry, seamlessly woven into a stunning design. I never felt jarred from one person to the next.

It had so many elements that were compelling to me: confinement, survival, the construction of family.

This is what reminded me of Jose Saramago's Blindness. The unvoluntary confinement. The will to survive. The elements of family. I think the two books would be an excellent choice for a comparison/contrast paper or discussion.

I think this is the sort of novel in which one must suspend disbelief. Again, to compare it to Saramago's Blindness, it's not a story that is 100% logical or even plausible, yet I don't think that was Patchett's intent. I think the actual hostage situation is more of a backdrop for the real story which involves the interplay between the various characters from both sides of the predicament.


  1. I read Bel Canto when it first came out and loved it. The writing, the characters, the plot...a wonderful and surprising book; as the characters evolved, I became even more desperate for things to work out. It remains one of my favorites.

    Loved The Samurai's Garden, as well. I like everything I've read by Tsukiyama, but for some reason, this was my favorite. Dreaming Water is a real heart breaker, but fascinating, not maudlin.

    Atonement, on the other hand, I did not care for. I know what you mean, however; I recommended Bel Canto to several people who just didn't care for it, and I was so surprised.

  2. I loved Bel Canto too when I read it but I didn't care for Atonement either. I am curious to see the film though.

  3. Jenclair - Yay! Another fan of Bel Canto and The Samurai's Garden. I agree, Dreaming Water was a fascinating read. I enjoyed it, too, but not as much as TSG. I'm sorry you didn't care for Atonement. I wonder why I loved it so? And, I wonder if I'd like it as well a second time?

    Nat - I'm anxious to see Atonement (the film), too! It's been quite a while since I read the book, but I haven't forgotten the major plot points. Maybe I'll read it again first, though.

  4. I love that you keep a journal of what you've read. I keep a journal (Several!) of my life, which are very meaningful to me. But, it would be nice to have an account of what I'd read, as you say, to look up 2004 for example. All I keep is lists, but who knows, maybe that will change this January. I agree with you about being disappointed when people don't like a novel you love. And, for the record, I was deeply affected by both Bel Canto and Atonement. I can remember them well, and I din't write one word about either.

    Happy, Happy Thanksgiving. It's been a day of cooking for me today, which is a good thing! (It would be fun to cook together.)

  5. Bellezza - I just completed my 10th reading journal. They date back to 1995. I wish I had started earlier! I enjoy flipping back through the earlier ones to see what I read during a certain period of my life. Now that I have my blog, my journal entries don't amount to much more than title, dates started and finished, etc. The blog is much more convenient with all the hyperlinks and cross-referencing to other books I've read.

    If you enjoy Bel Canto AND Atonement, I think you'd really like Blindness, Birds in Fall, and The Samurai's Garden. All very thought-provoking novels.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. We're going to friends, so all I've had to cook is my cheesy-dill potato dish. Yes, it would be fun to cook together--in your new fancy kitchen!!

  6. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Wishing you the very best this Thanksgiving! :)

    J. Kaye

  7. Hey Les! Well, it's now May, 2011, and I come via your link on my post of this book. I agree with many of your statements, and understand your feelings, but I didn't experience it in the same way. Some of the plot points that drew you in, ended up pushing me away.

    You mentioned other books that I have read: Atonement (2.5/5), Birds in Fall (3.75/5) and Blindness (4/5). Not bad considering I prefer mysteries/thrillers.

    I wish I had had your experience; it's the better way to go. :)

  8. Joy - Looks like we are on a completely different page when it comes to this style of book. Isn't it interesting that we had almost opposite reactions to Bel Canto, Atonement, Birds in Fall and Blindness? Did you read Cutting for Stone? I'm about two-thirds of the way through and I'm loving it.

  9. HA! I gave Cutting for Stone a 3.25/5. Too much time spent on that one for just an "okay" read. :( I agree that our ratings vary when it comes to this style of writing, but we are not THAT far off. I gave Blindness a 4 and Birds of Fall almost a 4. That's not "opposite," Silly! :) Although, in general, it's not a preferred genre of mine, but every now and then I get a winner.

    Speaking of genres, will you email me Cody's email addy? You gave it to me in a comment on a random post (not a Cody book), and I'd prefer not to search it out if you have it readily available. I think the addy was different from the one I have, but I'm not positive.

  10. Oops! I forgot to add that I am going to start listening to Faithful Place today. I know that that was a favorite of yours. My fingers are crossed. :)

  11. Joy - I just finished Cutting For Stone. Yes, it is quite a chunkster, but I think I'll give it a higher rating than your 3.25. ;) True, we aren't that far off with our ratings for these type of books. :)

    I'll send Cody's address to you via email. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond! I thought summertime was supposed to be relaxing??!!

    Hope you're enjoying Faithful Place!


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