The magical laundry room shelves were pushy about this. A few weeks ago I noticed a copy of Bel Canto wedged in next to an out-of-date guidebook to Denmark. With Ann Patchett’s current book getting a lot of attention, naturally I considered snagging Bel Canto but I’d tried it once before and wasn’t thrilled, so I left it there.
A week later, there were two copies of Bel Canto, so I complied with what seemed like a firm nudge from the Reading Fates, and snagged the one nearer to me. It was a slightly beat-up paperback, and someone had written on a few of the pages, but the notes were almost illegible. Later on, when I was about 2/3 of the way through the novel, I flipped back to the title page to find that it was signed, with a warm personal inscription, to a neighbor. And that the handwriting of the marginalia was Patchett’s! I’m not sure why she wrote notes in the margins for my neighbor and I don’t know him well enough to ask. But I will say this discovery made me feel more fond of the physical object.
Not so fond of the text itself, though. In a nutshell, it’s about a group of people who are held hostage by terrorists in an unnamed South American country. Among the ill-assorted captives is an opera singer named Roxane Coss who enchants everyone. So in some respects these characters are subject to a double captivity: the physical, political, violent one carried out by desperadoes, and the emotional, aesthetic, even spiritual one cast on them by the spell of Roxane’s voice and beauty. As you might guess, it’s a very structured tale. It feels almost mechanical in some respects. The opening, for instance, takes forever. As the band of terrorists breaks into the Vice President’s mansion, Patchett works in something like stop-frame animation. The narrator’s attention pans around the room and lands on one character or another, pausing to fill in the background. One motion or action may take up several pages. Time, actually, is one of her subjects in Bel Canto. The hostages are held for months, but the way they and the reader perceive the passage of that time varies according to Patchett’s treatment. Watches, clocks, television schedules, routines are stressed, though I’m not quite sure why.
The principal theme seems to be the transformation effected by this captivity, and in particular by the miracle of Roxane Coss’s music. The terrorists broke into a birthday party for a Japanese industrialist in this small country, in the hope of capturing the country’s president (who had elected to stay home to watch a soap opera instead). Thus the captives are businessmen, politicians, diplomats, even a priest. Over the course of the months, the roles of captive/captor are confused, and improbable bonds forged. Some are amorous, some are avuncular, all are benign: these ill-matched people turn their prison into a kind of Eden.
Given my preference for naturalistic fiction, Bel Canto was never going to be my cup of tea. While Patchett produces appealing characters and vivid settings, they aren’t her primary concern, since the book is closer to allegory. Ultimately, I felt a kind of chilly, off-putting distance between the author and her creation.