Bel Canto

Bel Canto by Ann PatchettGuest Reviewer: Natacha Pavlov

Full Title: Bel Canto: A Novel
Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper Perennial (2002)
Number of Pages: 318
How long it took me to read: 4 days
Where I got this book: A family member lent it to me.
ISBN: 978-0061565311

Like a Moth to a Flame

A family member read the book and recommended it to me. Since lately I’ve been reading classics, spiritual, and historical books, I took this as an opportunity to read something different for a change.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read.” (p.203)

4. “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.” (p.223)

3. “His own daughters constantly presented him with a mathematical impossibility, one minute running around the house wearing pajamas covered in images of the blankly staring Hello, Kitty, the next minute announcing they had dates who would be picking them up at seven.” (p.117)

2. “I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead then regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera.” (p.174)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “At the moment one is sure that all is lost, look at what is gained!” (p.154)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“The novel’s setting and characters initially bring to mind my parents’ own diverse cultural backgrounds and their variety of friends that I remember from my childhood growing up in Belgium. To this day, I still have a picture of me at a party in Brussels, dancing on the stage as a Middle Eastern man stands next to me singing. Since I was only about five years old, I don’t remember all the details of the event, but the culturally diverse foods and that stage dancing are the most striking memories I’ve retained.

“My memory of the singer is also triggered by the opera singer Patchett writes about. Roxanne Coss seems to be the main reason why most of the characters attend the international party. I’m drawing a parallel between the two, as in both instances many attendants couldn’t speak the singer’s language, yet were drawn in by their voice and the music.

“I’m also noting that there are bigger issues at stake, such as discussing the host country’s state of affairs, but it seems everyone mainly came to watch the famous soprano perform. I’m wondering if this might be a commentary on the way governments worldwide tend to handle important issues: big parties are held, issues advocated, money spent, but it often seems like a pretext to masquerade the lack of achievement.”

“My perception of the characters is changing. I’ve gone from being semi-indifferent toward them to enjoying learning intimate details about them; it’s the slow pace and character development that are making them more real and likeable. It has also pleasantly reminded me that although there are genres I usually prefer to read, I never know ahead of time how I might be affected by a certain read.

“I’m tempted to say that I don’t gravitate towards love stories—which I assumed Bel Canto would be—but the more I think about it, the more it seems every story involves love in some form. Although during these past few years, I’ve been mostly into genres that don’t have love as the main focus—such as history and/or anthropology texts—I do enjoy love stories, too. One of the reasons I might be reluctant to read love stories is because I fear they may be too vapid. However reading Bel Canto reminds me that some love stories are written in a more realistic light and don’t all carry the traits I prefer to stay away from. Seeing characters bond, despite the linguistic barriers, brings to mind my own delightful experiences with people whose languages I don’t speak.

“I’m reminded of my visits to Rome, during which I ended up temporarily ‘lost’ as I searched for my very poorly marked hotel entrance. Resolved to get answers ASAP, I entered a convent where Roman nuns instantly greeted me. My Italian proficiency being next to nonexistent, I resorted to the next best thing I had: my basic Spanish skills. What followed was an Italian-Spanish exchange, during which I quickly discovered that my hotel was right next door. Needless to say, I felt instant relief—if not a bit of irony—at being able to use another language to figure out my situation. My position also forced me to break out of my comfort zone and ask for help, regardless of the means.

“A similar memory comes to mind involving my travels in Jerusalem. While there wasn’t always a language barrier, it could sometimes be an issue.. However, it was nothing that couldn’t be resolved with an exchange of English-Arabic words or English-Hebrew terms, depending on the area I’d happened to be in. True to Mediterranean culture, the exchanges often involved hand gesturing as well in order to better convey the messages.

“Such encounters have reminded me throughout the years that people find amazing and creative ways of communicating with one another, regardless of their backgrounds; that realization has resurfaced through my journey with this book.”

“As I try to put myself in the characters’ shoes, I’m thinking of how my own sense of guilt might affect me in a hostage situation. While I would clearly not be happy about it, I also wouldn’t necessarily see it as some kind of karmic judgment being passed on me for my prior actions. For this reason, I find it a good habit to think about my actions daily, in order to lessen a guilt-filled mind in the long run. (I’d also find it a bit sad if I’d need such a drastic situation to finally make me look at my actions—talk about a harsh lesson!).

“I obviously would never want to be taken hostage, but if it did happen, my own experience would greatly differ from outsiders’ perceptions of it. Whereas most would be so quick to label it as a horrible thing—sympathize and assume I was traumatized by it—they’d be less likely to consider the inner growth I might experience or the friendships I’d made during such an ordeal. It might be just as mind-boggling for some to hear that a hostage found her soul mate via such an ordeal, which clearly puts another twist to the ‘you never know when you might find that special someone!’ line.”

“Something I find interesting in the story is how many of the characters take on different roles during their ‘house arrest.’ The book’s slow pace has a dream-like quality which makes me feel like I’m right there with the characters, but then—perhaps due to its effectiveness—eventually makes me question which one of the two realities is ‘the real world’ and therefore, who the ‘real’ characters are.

“It might be overly simplistic of me to dismiss the characters as having led unfulfilling lives ‘outside’ if compared to the simpler, more honest and intimate bonding experiences they share on the ‘inside.’ However, since we’re complex human beings, it just might be that we have a variety of identities that need only the right opportunity to manifest themselves. I know I’ve definitely seen friends act differently in a variety of situations, in both good and disappointing ways. Cue in: the outgoing, party-loving friend who gets shy around people he doesn’t know, the reserved yet headstrong friend who doesn’t back down when confronted, the girly-girl friend who turns out to be a great camper—sans make-up of course—and the politically inclined grad student with a penchant for painting. All these people in my life come to mind as I learn of characters’ varied—if not somewhat unexpected—interests.

“The hostage situation has also made me wonder about the concepts of right and wrong. Is it justified to act a certain way if there is the slightest chance you won’t survive through it? Am I more likely to follow rules or, conversely, to throw caution to the wind if faced with the possibility of death?

“I realize that, although it often depends on the situation, there are certain things I have to remain true to regardless of the situation. The two main things I couldn’t go through would include adultery and killing. I know that unfaithfulness would never be something I’d resort to because it’s deeply tied to my spiritual beliefs. This desire would—and definitely should—be secondary to my prior commitments to someone else. As much as I might be attracted to someone else, I’d feel that the connection I’d have with my partner would only be tainted by the unfaithful act. I’ve been called an old soul quite a few times because I choose to adhere to what some might call ‘strict rules.’

“In a world where instant gratification is the norm, being an old soul prevents me from engaging in ‘spur of the moment’ fun, since I tend to think about long-term consequences a lot. While it may be true that love can come from many sources—including from someone who isn’t your partner—I find it important to be loyal to whomever I’m with at a given time. In some ways, I blame the Hollywood ‘true love’ fantasies, which seem to pitch similar scenarios quite often. I’ve often gotten the impression that we’re bombarded by stories in which happy couples are put in compromising situations, in which unfaithfulness seems either downplayed or maybe even condoned. Such scenarios are often within the pretext of the other person being the actual ‘soul mate,’ so that it seems almost acceptable to betray the current partner. While we all know that matters of the heart are hardly ever simple, I believe there’s a process that can be followed so that everyone gets treated fairly, instead of pursuing selfish motives without thought of the consequences. Thus, my old soul—if that is the right term for it—affects my loyalty and requires active reflection upon the situations and choices I’m faced with.

“As such, the belief that it’s only our bodies that die, while our souls live on, only places greater importance on the choices I make in this physical life, for they may harm and contradict my spiritual ideals. So it makes sense that the threat of death shouldn’t be the defining factor of my actions; if I remain true to myself and pursue what’s ideal for me, the fear of ‘missing out’ on something would be decreased. Then, the concept that death is the one thing in life (aside from taxes!) that we all know will eventually happen will not seem like some kind of impending doom.”

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