Saturday, June 26, 2004

Patchett Job

The infuriating thing about Ann Patchett's acclaimed novel Bel Canto is that it should have been better. Don't get me wrong -- it's a perfectly fine, readable piece of literary fiction. But as much as I tried, I never reached that moment when I felt compelled to strip out every other activity in my life in order to finish the book. Easing my way to the last page felt more like an obligation, and that's really no way to spend a reading life.

Things begin promisingly, with terrorists crashing a party at the home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. Their intended target, the president, fails to make the party, however, and what ensues is a months-long hostage situation during which the terrorists and their captives grow close to each other. As a result, the tension leaks out of the novel with each passing page, and by the time Patchett tacks on her rushed climax, you just want the damn thing to resolve itself already.

Patchett writes well enough, but none of the characters is especially well drawn, and the terrorists' motivation is rendered only sketchily. I'm all for trim books, but Bel Canto aims to be a weighty book without the weight, and Patchett can't quite pull it off. We're meant to be as enraptured by the power of song -- the only female captive is a world-famous American soprano booked for the party -- as the book's other characters, terrorists as well as prisoners. But Patchett, for all her gifts, fails, if only slightly, to evoke the kind of transcendence needed to spark such ecstasy in the reader.

Bel Canto copped the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and was a nominee for the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award. The blurbs sprinkled on the cover of the paperback version are numerous and significant. Yet for all the praise, I can't help but think that Patchett was rewarded not for actually hitting the high note but simply for making a valiant effort.


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