The 2010 Olive Editions seemed, at first, to be a source of disappointment. Two books that I’ve already read (albeit years ago), including one that I loathed loathed loathed at the time. But I bought them because I’m crazy. So Brave New World and Their Eyes Were Watching God are sitting on my shelf, looking pretty but not high on my priority list. Bel Canto, though, excited the hell out of me. First off, the cover is maybe the most beautiful that the Olives have put out yet: the gray with the black music notes then that piercing red one in the middle… cool and delicious and beautiful. The idea of the book was hazy in my mind, even after purchasing it: something about opera, something about terrorists kidnapping people… that was really about it.
My uncle (Gregory Moore – for those that interested) is a huge opera buff and so, just before starting the book, I emailed him to ask if he’d read it. He responded with the most amazing quote, one that I think summarizes the feeling I had while reading this book: “[Ann Patchett’s] novels are very quiet. They are like sitting beside a stream in a forest. They just flow.”
Think about the simplistic beauty of just THAT sentence – the image it describes, etc. That idea of a quiet stream in a cool forest is the perfect description of what it feels like to read this book. It carries you along and has a calming influence on your psyche as you read. The ease of this book – it is not an EASY read in the sense that that term usually applies to novels, but it has an ease and poise about it. Calming. I don’t think I’ve ever been so calmed by just reading a book. It just felt so nice.
The opening of the book takes you by surprise, in a way. I’m not sure how, exactly, it does it – but you’re almost at a loss for breath. The book opens with a kiss and then we’re off! but at the same time, we’re not off. There is no rush to this story – it unfolds at its own pace (which is not slow, to be certain) – but there’s also an intractable draw towards some eventual end. Certainly, the subtle hints that Patchett peppers into the story: comments about the time after the occupation, things people remember and so on. The major plot surrounds a failed coup, essentially: the President of an unnamed South American country was supposed to be attending a birthday party where this famous soprano was singing but he wasn’t there. The terrorists, flying by the seat of their pants because their target wasn’t there, decide to take the whole house hostage instead. There is some tension at first but it quickly becomes clear that these people (the guests) are not in as much danger as they’d believe. They come to establish a symbiosis with their captors and the house turns into a sort of strange utopia. It isn’t Stockholm Syndrome – not really. It is just an example of the way that even the strangest of circumstances can be adapted to. Love blossoms in the strangest of ways – between individuals who don’t even speak the same language – and the entire thing is just beautiful. There are individuals who realize the untenableness of the situation – but for the most part, we (the reader) come to believe that this place is nice. That it really does seem like a peaceful kind of existence – peaceful out of the strangest and most potentially terrifying situation a person could conceive.
There is indeed a lot of talk about opera – the singer remains in the house and it is her singing that brings about this peace, it might be argued. The power of music – to fall in love with songs, with a singer, with an instrument – is discussed at length by individuals of different nationalities and backgrounds and the way that the music affects everyone, regardless of anything used to separate them, might be the most potent message to come from this book. But that’s belittling this book, to say that. It is, simply, a story. There are no messages. It is a story about politics – but so much more. A story about love – but so much more. A story about music, about a kidnapping, about language – but it is so much more than all of those things. The peacefulness that comes from this story, from simply reading it, is unlike anything I’ve ever felt or understood before. It is a beautiful novel – a bel canto of literature.
Rating: 6 out of 5. To say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read is probably pretty apparent at this point. In the same way that American Gods was so affecting on a level wholly different from any of the 5+ books I’ve read, so too is this book completely and wholly different from those marked with excellence. This is easily one of the five best books I’ve ever read. In the same way that you can listen to opera thousands of times and then suddenly say “Oh!” when you realize how beautiful it is, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was so simplistic-ly beautiful. To physically feel myself relax as I read this book – and yes, being home for Thanksgiving and having the first time to truly relax in months may have something to do with it, I admit – was something I’ve never experienced before. The ending is sad, the beginning is tense, and the whole thing feels so human that it is hard to believe this could’ve sprung from one person’s mind. Imagine sitting besides a stream in a forest with your eyes closed, to hear a beautiful soprano sing a beautiful aria… that’s what it is to read this perfect novel.