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.

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!