Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Bel Canto 2

I am not sure why you felt that there were signs that Bel Canto might end in a more favourable way, Emily. I was aware that Ann Patchett was making us care for the characters and fearful for their fate. This certainly added to the power of the story. It is easier to label such people as terrorists when they haven’t been fleshed out, but I can’t think of an alternative believable ending, can you? Would you feel sympathy with real-life hostage takers and murderers if you knew their personalities, talents and social backgrounds?
I do agree that the writing was very polished and enjoyable. I think I probably enjoyed the book more than my last post implied.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

February's book suggestion

What great posts! Glad we've all enjoyed it, but in different ways and with different reservations. Helen S's suggestion for an epilogue: perfect in literary terms, and I love the idea, but fear it would have been too bleak for me. I felt sure all along that it was going to have a "happy" ending as opposed to widespread tragedy - she conveys that in quite subtle ways, doesn't she? - so I would have had to hold Patchett to that... It is fairly rare, isn't it, for novels to jump genre at the end in the opposite direction: to have all the signs suggesting a positive resolution and then suddenly end horribly. I can't think of any examples offhand - can anyone help me?

While I'm waiting for that, February's book suggestion is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I hasten to add that the recent release of the film has absolutely nothing to do with it - Helen S and I thought it would be an interesting book for us to do some time ago, and it's taken a while to work it into the list. I have a spare copy; if anyone wants to borrow it, just let me know.

Hearty Agreement

I very much agree with everyone’s comments thus far on Bel Canto. I definitely enjoyed the intriguing plot and the gradual revelation of each of the characters but I think I had the same reservations as others that it didn’t fully “work”.

For me, the biggest annoyance was the elevation of the singer to almost divine status. I agree with Valerie S that being woken in the morning at 7am by a warbling woman singing scales would NOT have made me fall in love with her! As far as I am aware Opera singing tends to be one of those things that people either love or hate and I could have done with at least someone hating it (and possibly her – she was far too goddess-like for me). I thought Beatrice would have been an ideal character for that.

I agree with Val R that the balance of haves/have-nots was good. However, I felt there was a definite lack of anger from the young terrorists about their oppression and that of the families they had left behind and were supposedly trying to get released from prison. I felt that in contrast to the hostages, for whom rethinking their previous lives was appropriate, being surrounded by such opulence should have occasioned more anger. In my experience, teenagers tend to have the most anger regarding social justice. I felt that all Patchett succeeded in doing was turning them into complacent middle-classers with a taste for opulence and high culture.

The ‘bubble’ format always works well as providing a hot-bed for emotions and characters. However I felt that a siege of four months was pushing the idyll too far. There is no way that the Vice President would have cleared up and ironed for them as the ‘host’ for that long. No man I know would have managed a week let alone four months! Regarding the international make up of the party, what about a few culture clashes, misunderstandings and surely, at least a half hearted attempt at escape? After all, the hostages were made up of ‘all Chiefs but no Indians’: that must have occasioned at least one row!

I did enjoy the ending of the siege but agreed about the epilogue – terribly twee. Although, like Emily, I can’t think of a better way for it to end. If it was following an Opera plot then surely Roxanne Coss would have committed suicide in a dramatic fashion after the loss of her lover. Hey, not a bad idea!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Bel Canto

I spent the first half of this book feeling it to be slight, waiting for something to happen. After that I found I was enjoying it, but unsure why and at last I really had to know the outcome. As the characters slowly took shape I began to care what happened to them. I knew I would be disappointed in the book if it let the hostage takers off the hook but was searching for a way they could escape.
I enjoyed the image of the Deputy Prime Minister taking to housework as a sort of displacement activity, and there was the tension Val noted with Mr Hosokawa’s nocturnal trips to the singer’s bedroom and the translator’s lust for Carmen which were palpable.
But what was all that about the opera singer? I can appreciate a good voice, but every day….singing scales…..for HOURS. Did I miss the point here? Most of those hostages probably wanted to shoot her themselves by the end!
If the epilogue provided a necessary end to the author’s game plan, I am afraid that I missed that also, unless the translator married the singer as a locum for his employer. The natural ending for me was the release of the hostages.
The device of placing all the characters in a confined space and observing their personalities and behaviours has been used frequently, I am sure that we can all think of examples. Overall I enjoyed the book but the question for me is, has Ann Patchett managed to make it sufficiently powerful an example, or not? I think not quite.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Bel Canto encore!

I can’t wait any longer to say how much I enjoyed this book – and now I find Emily has got there first (between me writing this yesterday and posting today) – but I will not let that influence me.

How does Patchett make it a real page turner and yet embody the ennui of the place? (Wm Golding does similarly with his travel book Egyptian Journal, which begins with a statement of how boring the lack of view is from the boat but which is nonetheless gripping). The tension when Carmen is leading Hosokawa through the sleeping house is as unbearable as any I’ve read. And there are some beautiful touches – I’m thinking of Gen’s first reactions to his feelings for Carmen (when he thought she was a boy) – as we all know, you don’t need ripped bodices for high erotica. Or the view from the floor as all were forced to lie down. I thought the haves/have nots theme was also done without labouring the points – we see what the world is losing (in Carmen’s linguistic ability; Cesar’s singing; Ishmael’s chess etc) because these kids lives are so circumscribed by poverty. Carmen notes that one of the baths is larger than some of the canoes she’s travelled in… There were too, I thought, some echoes of GG Marquez/ A Chronicle of Death Foretold where everyone succeeds in pretending that the inevitable will not happen, which is how many of us handle death.

So is there a weak point: yes, I didn’t need, like, want the epilogue. Patchett had handled the ending she’d told us was coming so well – sudden , bleak and inevitable (and how did she manage to tell us at the start that the terrorists would all die, yet maintain tension and interest?) Was it supposed to be an encore? Encores in performances don’t work/aren’t used when the finale is itself untrumpable and similarly here. Can someone who knows about music composition explain this in terms of say Opera plots? I sensed that the structure of the book mirrored something of the sort (overture, adagio etc) without being able to follow it through. So Encore in the sense that I shall now find and read all her other books, because this is masterly (or the gender neutral equivalent) storytelling. But the epilogue as encore, no, please no.

Emily: great story telling but not great literature I think. Does redemption have to happen in the ending? Can it not be that the parochial world views of the characters were altered by the simple fact of spending time with others? As Mullan says, it is stretching belief that all those internationalists should be such poor linguists, but I think she’s probably right about the blinkered nature of their worldviews and interests. Don’t you think they all left the house less ready to dismiss the cries for equality and justice of the oppressed? Is that not redemptive? Indeed, is it not one of the best outcomes that the generals could have hoped for?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Warning: plot details of Bel Canto follow...

I'll be very interested to see what the rest of you think of Bel Canto. I very much enjoyed reading it but feel a bit ambivalent about it. I'd probably give it 8 rather than 9, if we were marking, since it didn't feel quite "great" enough. Sorry - very clumsily expressed. I think I mean that it seemed a little light, possibly from the implausibility. Not the set-up, but the redemptive nature of it. I love my novels to be redemptive, but I need to believe the scenario is possible for it to "work" fully. John Mullan did a brilliant series on the book (thanks for the tip, Val!) (google finds them instantly, of course, but I'm now about to bore you with the digest). Mullan made the very helpful point that Patchett: "makes fiction into a complex testing of sympathy. A shift in point of view often forces us to understand a hitherto objectionable character. Sympathy is shown to be an effect of narrative point of view". He notes that Patchett risks our disbelief with this, and that may be what I'm groping towards. Patchett seems to be suggesting that there are no evil people in the world, and that terrible things only happen due to accident or weakness. This is cleverly handled, by switching into people's thoughts only when they're doing something we're sympathetic towards. We don't know what the Generals are thinking as they attack the Vice President, for instance. But I can't quite go with it, since evil clearly does exist in the world.

I know that Patchett has deliberately isolated her characters from the real world, evil included, and that's certainly a fascination of the book for me. The sense that they are inside a bubble is very powerful, and she's done things with it. Mullan points out that "the once urgent-seeming plots of their lives are suspended... What do they actually care about?". There is certainly nothing like a compelled constraint in circumstances for making us rethink, and I enjoyed that aspect. Mullan says "Her novel delights in the slowing down of conversation" through translation, which adds to that sense of being isolated from normal processes and having to be more deliberate. The characters are captive linguistically, geographically, socially and in terms of autonomy. Incidentally, I found the stuff about translation fascinating. I also found the plot gripping and witty (eg when you could tell who was being released or kept according to the cut of their tuxedos, or Simon Thibault not being taken completely seriously by the other men because he was clearly in love with his wife and wearing her scarf, or the - correct! - assumption that he alone must be able to cook because he was French, or the bit when the Russian is explaining to Roxanne that he doesn't want her to come and live with him, but to have a more expansive, Russian view of love) and I enjoyed being in the company of the characters and in that atmosphere.

What did you all think of the epilogue? I thought the ending of the siege was masterly, and really original. Surprising, yet totally in keeping - exactly as an ending should be! I can't decide whether the epilogue was consoling and plausible enough, or implausibly consoling. Help me out here! I think something was necessary to provide a bridge between the novel (very optimistic) and the ending of the siege (very bleak). Trying to imagine how I'd feel about the end of the siege being the end of the novel, I think I would find it too jarring, but I can't tell. Help!

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Hi, everyone. Just to suggest that if anyone has yet to post on When I lived in modern times, and is ready to do so, now might be a good time. I think some of us are ready to post on Bel Canto, so we'll be moving on to that imminently. Nothing wrong with overlapping, of course - could give us some very illuminating viewpoints! - but just so we all know where we are.

In the interests of not overwhelming ourselves, I'd like to suggest that January's proposed book be pushed more into February. Cut ourselves a bit of slack after Christmas workloads... Read it when you like, but it's likely to be discussed more in Feb than in Jan since we have the final posts on Linda Grant to do, and then Bel Canto. If anyone wants to know February's choice early, feel free to email me. Otherwise I'll post it towards the end of this month.