Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bel Canto, Anne Patchett

Posted by lea at 2:46 PM
Bel Canto starts off with a great premise: a group of terrorists break into an elite party in a third-world South American country with the aim of kidnapping the President, who, it turns out, is missing because he decided to stay at home to watch his favourite soap opera. The terrorists' plans quickly go awry, leading to them taking a number of guests as hostages, including the world's most famous opera singer, the beautiful Roxane Coss (also the world's most annoyingly portrayed literary lead character), and holing up for months as the terrorists negotiate their demands with the Government.

The story itself isn't so bad, although it's written with a half-assed, eyes-closed earnest romanticism that would have better suited a bodice ripper than a literary novel, but the adoration of Roxane Coss by not only the other hostages, terrorists and even the negotiator, but clearly by the author herself, becomes quite unbearable. No Disney princess was ever drawn with greater perfection and more adulation by her creator. The story loses any tenuous credibility by trying to make us believe the hostages love being woken by her practicing her scales at 6 o'clock every morning, that the terrorists would give in to her whims because she stamps her feet and threatens never to sing again if they don't, that fully grown men cry and birds fall silent when she sings, that she looks even more beautiful when she's weary and without make up so that men and women alike fall in love with her while she looks on with gracious smiles.
Give me a break.

Fortunately the book improves pushing into the second half and redeems itself as it branches out into other characters and the relationships they form. There are some good bits, like when the Red Cross negotiator is patted down for the umpteenth before being admitted entry into the home:
Messner submitted to this drill with patience. He held his arms out straight to either side and moved his sock feet wide apart so that the strange little hands could rummage around his body as they saw fit. Once, one of them tickled him on the ribs and Messner brought his arm down sharply. "Basta!" he said. He had never seen such an unprofessional group of terrorists. It was a complete and utter mystery to him how they had ever managed to overtake the house. (p.136)

But there are also some stupid bits, like when the Generals refuse to allow Roxane's sheet music to be delivered outside the roster:
Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence. They did not notice the absence of flowers or champagne, in fact, they knew now that flowers and champagne were unnecessary embellishments. Had she really not been singing all along? Their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all. They cried for the beautify of the music... all of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear. When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence. Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. "Tell him that's it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment."

The situation is very surreal, and you can kinda see where Patchett wants to take it, especially as intriguing relationships form between the terrorists and hostages and you get to know and sympathise with them (the terrorists are drawn with a far more sympathetic pen than the hostages), however Bel Canto ends on a very strange and abrupt note.

Personally, from this reader's point of view, the book would have been far better if it had toned down the Roxane Coss factor and the romantic language and told the story in a more simple, honest way.


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