A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

with 4 comments

Many of the books I’ve blogged about so far this year have dealt with the difficulty of reconciling people. From Marilyn French’s stark portrait of the gulf that separates men and women, to Trilby Kent’s depiction of the rift between coloniser and colonized, the impenetrability of the barriers that divide us — whether political, historical, physical or financial — are a recurring theme in women’s lit (perhaps in all lit, although it hasn’t struck me so forcibly before).

Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto flirts with being an exception to this rule. Set in an anonymous South American state, this Orange Prize-winning work depicts the creation of an unlikely Utopia after a kidnap attempt finds a gaggle of rebel fighters holed up with 200 wealthy dinner guest hostages at the vice president’s mansion.

As days turn into weeks, the captors and captives’ perspectives soften and their horizons narrow until none can imagine an alternative existence. Set free from the straitjackets of their roles and routines, they are at liberty to structure their world afresh and explore the wells of potential — for music, communication and love — that everyday life too often leaves unplumbed.

Patchett’s skill lies in her ability to inhabit her characters, giving even the most peripheral a rich, inner life. The mystery of prayer, the alchemy of translation, and the curious blend of the physical and the mental that singing requires are all bodied forth, clothed in lavish perceptions.

Yet it’s the little human touches that bring the story home: the longing for a piece of cake you’ve saved to the end of a meal, the memory of a childhood party, the president’s secret penchant for a particular soap opera that means he misses the party — and scuppers the kidnap plans — in the first place.  

In fact, human frailty — or at least humankind’s collective inability to get past the barriers that the characters overcome on a personal level — is ultimately what brings Utopia crashing to earth. While the epilogue may feel a little too neat for some, there can be no question of the power of the novel’s final events.

As the threads of understanding that the narrative stretches across political, religious, national and financial boundaries tremble and snap, you feel deep sadness that the level of harmony reached (in all senses) in the compound cannot be translated into the wider world.

I doubt I’ll read anything as wistful for a long time.

Picture (from Libya) by Nasser Nouri

Written by Ann Morgan

September 28, 2011 at 7:40 am

4 Responses

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  1. manonmona reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.


    September 28, 2011 at 8:42 am

  2. I loved — LOVED — Bel Canto…until the epilogue, which was not merely too neat but erroneous and ruinous to the novel. I still like the book a good deal, but had she ended it where it ended, well, it would be a masterpiece or something awfully close to it.

    Jason Cooper

    October 5, 2011 at 12:47 am

    • You’re right – the ending would have been brilliant if she’d left the epilogue off. It almost feels like a commercial compromise – like Thomas Hardy writing a happy ending to The Return of the Native because his publisher asked for it (or Dickens with Great Expectations for that matter). Can’t help feeling there might have been an editor or agent with a hand in it somewhere…

      By the way, the Undset trilogy is sitting next to me as I type – am trying to get a few more short titles under my belt before I tackle it as I reckon it may take me a little while…


      October 5, 2011 at 7:44 am

  3. […] by Ann Patchett | The California Journal of Women Writers bel canto by ann patchett | Ardent Reader Ann Patchett: Bel Canto | A year of reading women Ann Patchett – Bel Canto | Fyrefly’s Book […]

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