The Book Cellar book club discussed Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto on February 9. Bel Canto won, among others, the PEN/Faulkner award in 2002, putting Patchett in the company of John Updike (The Early Stories 1953-1975), Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Philip Roth (The Human Stain and Everyman). High honors. (Our book club has also discussion 2010 PEN bridesmaid Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna.)
Personally, I didn’t like the book. It took an Atlas-esque feat of strength to hold up my suspension of disbelief. I caved about 1/3 of the way into the book. In an unnamed South American country, terrorists storm the mansion of its vice-president, taking dozens of hostages. The revolutionaries soon discover that that president isn’t even there. They lack a back-up plan and scramble to come up with ideas. As the terrorists and the hostages mingle over the next four months (really, the “crisis” lasts at least a third of a year), they all realize they like life better now. If only they could stay in this mansion forever!
Part of me bought into the fact that the terrorists had it better in the mansion. They came from the jungle. Most of them are teen soldiers. In the mansion, they have running water, food, basic comforts of home that the rich hostages took for granted. But the visiting dignitaries? Why are they so content with losing their freedom? Why aren’t they plotting to escape?
A book club member brought in some interesting information: Bel Canto is loosely based on real events. In 1996, the Japanese embassy (or, more specifically, the Ambassdorial residence) in Peru was invaded by the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. They took hostages for 126 days. At the end of the crisis, despite reports that many of the insurgents surrendered, all the revolutionaries were executed, and one hostage lost his life in the crossfire.
Patchett’s novel closely resembles this crisis. If I had known that the (to me) wholly unrealistic story was, in fact, based in reality, I might have had more patience with it. But thanks to the book club discussion, my perspective on the novel broadened beyond the limited POV presented in the text. I was able to step back and see what was going on, what the characters in the book couldn’t. And in good fiction, what isn’t written is often as important, if not moreso, than what is on the page.
Our newly omniscient perspective allowed us to see the hostages Patchett didn’t write about. The dozen or so huddling in the corner, plotting their escape. The ones who realized that the insurgents were just children–children who fell asleep on duty, only to wake up when their guns clattered to the ground. The ones who hated Roxane Coss, the opera singer, too, and wished the generals would just man up and shoot her! The ones that had the same frustrations as the book club members who didn’t like the book (although I appreciated it more, I would still hestitate to say I liked it…).
What if Patchett’s novel were re-written from their perspective? Hell Can’t-Oh!, the tale of the hostages who, oh, can’t wait to get the hell out of there! They’re sick of being confined to the lower level of the vice president’s mansion. The hostages in Bel Canto are free to roam the mansion, except for the second floor.
Their limited access reminded me of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s tacky Memphis, TN, estate. You can’t go up to the second floor there either. When I was a child, I was told it was because Elvis’s aunt still lived there. Wouldn’t it be weird having hundreds of people tour your home every day? I can’t imagine she’s still alive. A dozen years ago, I thought I saw her there, in a wheelchair alongside the kidney-bean shaped pool. But she’s just a fuzzy memory, like the ghost of Elvis that walks right through the music-note-emblazoned gates of Graceland in Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis.”
Hell Can’t-Oh would have to take place in Graceland. A dozen book club members trapped in the jungle room, the iconic Graceland room with green shag carpeting on the floors, walls, and ceiling. There’s a fountain in the corner, too. Instead of an opera singer, we would be accompanied by an Elvis impersonator. Most of us would probably want him dead, much as we wished the same fate upon bossy opera singer Roxane Coss in Patchett’s tale. But ultimately, we would all want to get the hell out of there!
Have you read Bel Canto or any of Ann Patchett’s other work? What did you think? Patchett’s latest novel, Run, takes place in Boston. Read more about Patchett at her website.
Book club discussions make books so much more interesting, even books I wouldn’t normally give a second glance. Join us in our Nashua store at our next meeting a week from tomorrow, on Wednesday March 9th, when we’ll discuss Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama. The initial g in “gods” is lower case for a reason. The first line: “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks… and also Jesus.”