Sunday, August 2, 2015

Bel Canto

When I read Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett, I told you that there were some authors I knew I would like, long before I actually read their works.  Well, Ann Patchett is another one.  I own almost all of her books, but this is the first I've read.  I think I waited so long because I knew the story would be an emotional rollercoaster from the description on the back.  The set up sounds completely fabricated- an evening party full of international elites is taken hostage, and the ordeal draws out over four months, while the hostages and terrorists find themselves forging relationships they never thought they would or could.  But what floored me is that the set up is based on a true story, and not as loosely as one might assume.  An actual terrorist attack in Lima, Peru, in 1996 very closely mirrors the structure, or frame, of Bel Canto.  This is important, in a book that is often criticized for being over the top in relation to reality.

I do see what the critics mean.  I think the book would have been more meaningful, in a way, if the younger terrorists hadn't turned out to be savants limited only by their lack of education.  I also wonder if the degree of the miraculous talents weren't skewed by the hostages' closeness to the terrorists.  Was Cesar really capable of becoming a world class opera singer, or did Roxane just really, really, really want him to have that capability and project it on to him?  Was Carmen really that intelligent, or did love color Gen's assessments?  We don't know.  But Patchett's style is such that I think she would have told us, if that were true.  So, there are issues.  

I also think that every book has flaws, flaws that might be tiny or might be gigantic.  The trick, or the magic, comes when it manages to make you love it anyway.  Which I do, with Bel Canto.   In a weird way, reading this book reminded me of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.  Now there's a book with legions of fans where the magic did not work for me.  All I could see were the flaws.  

There are so many beautiful moments in Bel Canto, and a focus on the good in human nature.  That's actually rarer than you would think, in the literary world.  Patchett is wordy, but her sentences flow like water and still manage to come across as concise.  She includes so much subtle humor, playing up the irony of hostages enjoying their time with their captors.  She makes a ton of sharp observations, and you learn so much by seeing how each of the main characters view the world and the others.

Final call:

In the very early stages of the book, you learn that the terrorists do not survive, and you think, "Good."  By the end, you think, "What a shame."  And that's nothing short of amazing.

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