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review: bel canto


I have a friend who continually passes on books to me.  She’s much more inclined to read novels and literature than I am, so she has been largely responsible for much of my higher-brow reading the last few years.  If it weren’t for her, I would be reading science books almost exclusively.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, was the winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as several others. It has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for some time.  The blurb on the back described the book as being about a lavish birthday party in honor of a powerful businessman, with entertainment by a leading opera singer, in which the entire group gets taken hostage. This seemed like a rather tired scenario that didn’t make me want to dive right in.  Finally, I picked up Bel Canto, and could not put it down.

I’ve summed up the plot, and there isn’t a lot to add.  The plot is not the attraction of this book, but is a framework for Patchett’s beautiful writing. At the risk of sounding trite or hackneyed, I have to describe it as vivid and lyrical, much like the soaring voice of the soprano who is a central character.  The hostages include people of many nationalities, which allows Patchett to explore vastly different personalities. She manages to do so without resorting to any stereotypes.  The improbability of the situation, which grows into a months-long stand-off, seems to get swept aside as you enjoy the hushed, subtle pleasure of Patchett’s prose.

There was really no satisfactory way to end this novel, and indeed the ending is abrupt and disappointing.  I think it is a rare author that can write so elegantly as to completely overcome a thin plot and enthrall the reader. Patchett accomplishes this feat, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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  • Kris February 20, 2006, 1:03 pm

    My book group read this book and loved it. The writing is unbelievably good. But you know what? I never read the ending. I knew it would be bad (as in "bad things happen"), and I just didn't want to go there. I've never done that with a book before. Weird, huh?

  • Kris February 20, 2006, 1:23 pm

    I forgot to say that her earlier novels are not as good, except for The Magician's Assistant, which I wholeheartedly recommend. It's not that the others are really bad; they just don't have the grace and lyricism of the later ones.