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100 Books in a Year: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

By Josie Brown | Books | March 18, 2009 |

By Josie Brown | Books | March 18, 2009 |

When I was in AP English, we read a book that so affected the class that almost every single one of us used it on the AP test itself, and in fact waited after the test was done to find our teacher and tell her we’d done so. The book was called Four Letters of Love, by Irish author Niall Williams, and it so perfectly captured the pressing, insistent, almost suffocating, dizzying feeling of love that I believe it changed us all and showed us just how powerful the written word could be. The book had a central romantic love story, yes, but it didn’t stop with love between a man and a woman. Four Letters spoke eloquently about the love people can have for art, for God, for their children and for their parents, and though he never addresses it directly, Williams’ writing is a testament to the glory of love one can have for their country. To date, I have worn out two copies of Four Letters of Love. Williams also wrote a book called As It Is In Heaven, which dealt with many of the same themes, but with music front and center.

These books are what I think Bel Canto wants to be. For years, people have been suggesting this book to me, and now that I’ve finally read it, I’m left quite disappointed. It is a great, unique idea, very poorly executed. The premise concerns a hostage situation at a Vice Presidential mansion “somewhere in South America,” where a Japanese businessman’s birthday is being celebrated with a performance from a legendary opera singer. The captors believe they are taking a stand for “the people,” but the enterprise is poorly planned and ultimately ineffective. Most of the people trapped in the mansion are there to convince the businessman to put a huge factory in the unnamed South American country. They are from all over the planet, and as a result, much of the story revolves around the young translator who came with the Japanese businessman. I’m guessing I don’t need to tell you that everyone winds up Forging Bonds all over the place and Making It Work.

There’s a lot to work with here. Patchett makes a game stab at relaying the feeling of that universal human communication that transcends language, while still highlighting the magic found in the wide variety of different dialects. She tries to get across the sad futile desperation that washes over these small South and Central American revolutionary groups, and almost succeeds. She really, really wants to get across the power of music and of opera specifically. The reason Patchett fails is twofold; first, she relies excessively on cliched images and descriptions which take away from the geniune accounts she works up, and secondly, she does not appear to have the patience to tease out all of these different plot strands. She has too many people and tries to do too much. There is no shame in picking just one area to really shine light on and doing it well; you don’t need to illuminate love AND politics AND music AND language AND people all at once, especially if you’re not going to put the necessary amount of work in to open them up.

Ultimately, Patchett’s refusal to identify even the country in which the story unfolds is symptomatic of her biggest problem - an unwillingness to commit. It takes courage to really give yourself over to describing love in all its overwhelming discord. It takes strength to close your eyes and rush in to showing people how you feel about opera and why it makes your body respond even when you don’t understand the language. It takes real honesty to wade in to figuring out why there are some things that people don’t need language for. These things aren’t easy. Frankly, you could easily fail even if you’re fully committed and open to presenting them to your reader. If you aren’t even starting from that point, you’re doomed to failure before you write your first word. If you can’t decide what country you’re in, and settle instead for a vague feeling of…Latin America-ness, how are you going to really bring the influence of the country in? How can you ever hope to get further in to specifics if you can’t decide where you are?

Finally, the book is technically incomplete and tonally…weird. I know we’re entering a new and horrifying era where it’s okay to not give a shit whether you can spell the most basic 4-7 letter words, but if you are publishing a book, and particularly if you somehow wind up as a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, I really need to not find typographical errors. On one page, “vial” is misspelled as “vile,” and then on the very next page spelled correctly. There were two more errors that I caught. I know no one’s perfect, but how many books do you read that ARE typographically perfect? The vast majority are, because they are properly edited and proofed. It’s part of the process and I don’t know what happened here, but it’s a shame. Maybe this doesn’t happen to other people, but when I see typos, I am jarred out of the story for a moment…this isn’t a book that can afford that momentary disconnect.

The tone is somewhat trickier. It’s just not very good writing. There is one section where Patchett has a character exhorting another to think of love in “the Russian way,” i.e. in a much broader and deeper way. There’s a lot to explore there - part of what makes Russian literature so rewarding for the Western reader is the view into the very different and extremely complex feeling of Russian love writ large - but that’s the last we hear of it and Patchett doesn’t show us this type of love. In fact, the comment about it comes from a Russian character who has just gone through a fairly trite (and very Western) declaration of love to a woman he hardly knows. I know he’s supposed to be enraptured by the woman’s voice, but the idea is wasted with clumsy treatment. Even worse, the scene is followed not more than one page later by the first and only use of the word “fuck,” and it is in the context of one of the young captors becoming aroused by and wanting to fuck music. Lazy concept that’s been used better before by stronger authors, and even more discordant by the time shortly afterwards when we are expected to understand this same child as a shy potential singing prodigy with incredible purity of sound and innocence of voice. You just can’t mix the two concepts in the same character if you’re not going to take the time to fully unpack the character and the idea. The same tonal problems appear at the conclusion of the book; not content to leave the book as an exploration of love and music, I think Patchett felt pressured to make it about more and this lead her to throw in a sudden, somewhat inexplicable ending. It was stupid, okay? It could have been perfectly fine, but it was stupid and out of nowhere, and just as clunky as the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but without the goal of staving off continual questions from a massive fan base.

I wish I was blown away by this book. There were a lot of good ideas in it that were left half-finished along the way. It was trite and unfulfilling, and I’m concerned about what its popularity says about the general public’s standard for good writing. I probably wouldn’t be so bothered by this if Bel Canto hadn’t been recommended to me so many times, but as it is, it leaves me cold and irritated.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here. And check here for more of Josie Brown’s reviews.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.