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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bel Canto

Bel Canto: A Novel by Ann Patchett

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful:

April 29, 2005

This is a book I thought had everything working against it. First off, it's about opera which I know nothing about. And anything relating to sound is hard to translate to literature, because the author can say, "she sang beautifully" but what does that really mean to me? It's easier on movies or TV where you can actually HEAR the singer and have a good point of reference. Finally, there wasn't really a central character--the protagonist or "hero" of the story--but instead a handful of characters--including some of the terrorists or the supposed "bad guys"--who were given the most attention. Yet despite all odds, this book succeeded on the level that it kept me interested enough to read the end.

However, even after reading this book I'm not an opera fan and I'm not sure why I should be. Roxanne Coss's singing may be nice, but it doesn't seem to matter that she's singing opera as opposed to Britney Spears. Most of the people who heard her didn't even know Italian so they were just soothed by the quality of her voice. She could have been singing nursery ryhmes and it wouldn't have mattered. So in the end, I'm not convinced that opera is all that great; it seems to be more about the power of music in general to tame the savage beasts.

But I think the more important point was that love can overcome barriers like being from different societies or classes or not even being able to speak the same language. On that level I thought the book really worked because most of the main characters loved someone despite the odds. Gen the translator and Carmen the terrorist loved each other despite the difference in age, culture, and background. Roxanne the American singer and Mr. Hasakawa the Japanese CEO loved each other though they could not speak the other's language. Ruben the vice-president and Oscar Mendoza the construction boss loved Ishmael like a son though he was a terrorist. Even Simon Thibault loved his wife more and more though she was on the outside while he was trapped in the house. So in the end the book was about love though not really what you'd call a romance.

I think the biggest problem for me was the ending. After reading about all these characters, I wanted to know what became of them after the siege ended, but for the most part I was denied that knowledge. Maybe I should assume life just went back to normal except for the improbable wedding. That wedding seemed tacked-on as a way to end the story on a high, hopeful note, but it fell flat to my ear. There was no real explanation of why these people came together or even when, so it didn't seem to make a lot of sense to me.

It seemed equally improbable that through four and half months of being trapped not a single hostage tried to escape. Myself, if I was being held by a bunch of teenagers--who routinely slept during the night watch--I'd try to slip out and get to safety at some point. That no one even seems to consider this seems very, very unlikely to me. Maybe it's because for the most part they're wealthy diplomats and corporate honchos, but it still doesn't seem terribly realistic to me.

In the end, there are still many things working against the book. The lack of central characters keep the story from moving at a quick pace. The greatness of opera is never explained or realized to me. In the end its saving grace comes through what we are able to see about the most important characters. I don't recommend this for those who prefer fast-paced commercial fiction, but if you can handle a slow-paced literary yarn add "Bel Canto" to your playlist.

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