Ann Patchett, “Bel Canto” (2001) – The main question this book raised for me was this: how to describe and rate a novel that has flawless prose, from sentence level to plot construction, but that is also, fundamentally, a little boring? That takes something notionally exciting — a hostage situation! wealthy socialites held by third world guerrillas! — and makes it, mostly, a site of examination for the personal regrets, cares, and in some cases growth of some of the hostages and hostage-takers?
Fine prose is one of the keys to Ann Patchett’s reputation. Another is her real lack of pretense. She hasn’t even got that sort of stuck up pretense of rebellion a lot of writers who manage to escape more conventional pretense wind up displaying. What you see is what you get. Patchett didn’t promise a deep, searing examination of the causes or effects of terrorism, of social stratification, or of anything else. She didn’t promise literary experiment. She told a story, and on a prose level, told it with unrivaled grace. There’s not even really any kind of prose pyrotechnics: just very clear, effective, elegant writing, every word in place.
There’s a theme, which is love. Love is put in extremis here. First, it’s a rich man’s love of opera. A Japanese executive, one of the richest men in the world, lets a small, impoverished Spanish-speaking nation bait him to a pitch meeting that the businessman doesn’t take seriously by getting the world’s greatest soprano to sing for him. The businessman is a big opera guy, you see. Once the terrorists take the dinner party over, love of art gets contrasted with the desire of the terrorists for revenge for various bad things their regime did, and the meaningless deaths that result. But the protracted siege allows hostage and hostage taker to come to some understandings. Love blossoms across these lines, and along them, little gesture of kindness depicted by Patchett with minute fineness and great emotional intelligence, especially for a scenario that could lend itself to laughable romanticism. The violence of the state comes along to take its own tax on love and humanity, but it goes on… for some, anyway.
Well… it’s not a bad plot. I didn’t find it especially compelling, especially as the characters, while elegantly sketched and differentiated, also weren’t super-interesting, and only had a limited range of action, given the circumstances Patchett put them in. I guess my main critique was that it’s almost too smooth. There’s no real “biting point,” nothing to chew on. Me and my eating metaphors! Surely, Patchett deserves a great deal of credit for her chops, in any event. ****’