Here some of my thoughts about Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, the first of the SBC summer book club selections for 2011. To see what others had to say, visit the official blog site maintained by Professor Carrie Brown, here.
While reading Bel Canto, one of the first things I noticed was that the book is written using a third person omniscient narrator. This allows Patchett a great amount of freedom in her narration because she is not limited by a particular character’s perspective and she can delve into people’s thoughts and minds. This stylistic choice seems important to me because I believe that it facilitates the lyricism of the writing. This type of narrator allows Patchett a certain critical distance and the ability to step back from the action of the story and write things like “all of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a 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 that they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear” (153). This observation is clearly from the author or narrator’s perspective as it makes a claim about the emotional states of both the hostages and the terrorists, which would be impossible for any one character to know and an improbably insightful and introspective thought for someone in the moment. This perspective is integral to the novel, because it further allows Patchett to delve into interpersonal relationships and to explore the intimate interactions between characters around which the story revolves.
Kate wrote her entry about understanding as a central theme in the novel, and I agree with her, but I think that equally important is the idea of communication. Certainly the two are intertwined, but I think that novel raises questions about the universality of human interaction; do people need language to understand one another, to communicate? Patchett’s English bent (as opposed to an anthropological approach) leads her to imply that there can be a universal standard for art or beauty and therefore a universal appreciation of it. While this is a lovely notion, it seems to me that the form of beauty (in the Platonic sense) has numerous manifestations that differ from the abstract ideal and there is nothing to say that they are all appreciated unanimously or equally. Plato suggests that to recognize beauty in all of its forms brings one closer to comprehension of the ideal, but we know from experience that tastes differ. In other words, I don’t know how realistic it is to assert that terrorists and Japanese businessmen alike all harbor an instant appreciation for opera, however, Patchett’s larger themes about understanding, and a common humanity make for a satisfying if idealistic premise.