Favorite Books #8
I studied Ann Patchett's Bel Canto while writing Where Are We Tomorrow? as a guide for how to successfully write an ensemble piece. I worked on dissecting her novel while studying with my brilliant mentor, A.J. Verdelle, author of the upcoming Miss Chloe and the Good Negress. A.J. wanted me to discover how Patchett managed to write a compelling work with an omniscient point of view. Bel Canto will continue to be one of my favorite books because I grew to know it so intimately. For those who want more than a quick recommendation, who want to dive with me into discussions about how authors do what they do, I've pasted my observations below.
Oh, and go check out A.J. Verdelle's work too (her latest will be out in September). This woman knows how to write and how to inspire her students to learn.
Analysis of Bel Canto:
In Ann Pachett’s Bel Canto, the lives of sixty-one characters intertwine and connect in complicated patterns. Patchett is successful in creating complex storylines involving a host of characters speaking many languages because of her choice of POV and setting. Omniscience is crucial to the book, essential to our moving inside the thoughts of both the terrorists and the hostages. The setting inside the house encapsulates the hostage situation, contrasting with the world outside the gates. Only one character travels between. This keeps the story contained and pulls us into the vortex of events.
The book opens with a question that leads us forward. Was there a kiss? What exactly happened when the lights went out? By page 15 we know the answer to what happened: the terrorists have invaded. Hundreds of partygoers attending Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday are being held captive. The high drama in these opening pages offers hints regarding many of the storylines, certainly the major conflict of the terrorists vs. the hostages.
But it’s the personal entanglements that captivate us. The love that builds between Hosokawa and Roxane, the opera singer hired to sing at his party, is revealed in layers. In the opening pages we learn that Hosokawa has been infatuated with Roxanne for decades, but that love gradually becomes manifest. We observe the couple through the eyes of the other characters (hence the importance of omniscience) through much of the book. Hints of the impending relationship are dropped subtly: on page 123 Roxane reflects on Hosokawa’s dignity and then on p. 166 Hosokawa wonders if this period of captivity is the happiest time in his life. We slowly come to understand that their affection is genuine and mutual.
Roxane is the glue that holds all of the characters together. They observe her, talk about her, scheme around her and dare to dream of her. The book opens describing many of the guests’ feelings about her and her accompanist. It is fitting that the accompanist dies at the beginning. With his death, the other characters are free to get close to her, to fantasize; Kato is able to exercise his long-hidden talents and become her new accompanist. Hosokawa begins his relationship with her.
Patchett deftly reminds us throughout the book that Roxane is this force around which all storylines revolve. Every chapter brings us new reflections on her character, on her talents. Every storyline involves her. Even Messner, the Red Cross worker who is allowed to step in and out of the mansion, the character least likely to romanticize the situation, longs to get close to Roxane. On page 236, just as all of the storylines have been revealed (including the minor storylines of the priest’s ambitions, the Russian’s love, Ishmael’s longings, and Cesar’s singing), we learn that Messner too has been thinking of Roxane at night. He fantasizes about slipping her under his coat and smuggling her out the door, into the greater world. He wants to rescue Roxane, whereas many of the other characters want her to rescue them—either metaphorically with her singing, or literally, such as Cesar dreaming she will take him to Italy with her.
It’s the love between Gen, the interpreter, and the rebel Carmen that truly hooks us. Their love is forbidden. Opposing forces coming together to find love is a classic theme. Their relationship is hidden and we root for them. This storyline drives the narrative forward, keeps us riveted, turning pages. Will they get caught? Will they escape? Can they overcome their backgrounds and circumstances to find happiness? Again, hints about their romance are dropped early: on page 91 Gen is embarrassed to feel stirred by the “young boy” who is actually Carmen.
On page 262, at a peak, the two romantic storylines merge. The couples become reliant on each other when Carmen must lead Hosokawa up to Roxanne’s room. Our hearts race, wondering if Carmen, who is defying her generals, is going to get caught. Both the couples in the book and the reader are emotionally invested. We want Carmen to be safe, though it is stated in the first chapter that things do not end well for the terrorists. We hope against hope that Carmen and Gen will make it.
The more minor storylines, such as the rebel Cesar learning to sing opera, hold nearly equal dramatic weight, though Cesar’s story, in particular, is not referenced often until his story really picks up on page 266, quite late in the novel. But looking back, again, we can see where Patchett has skillfully laid the foundation for this storyline. In the second chapter, Cesar holds Roxane’s hand while he accompanies her to the restroom. He hums parts of the song she’d been singing. We hear little from him throughout the novel, just enough so that he stays alive for the reader.
Every character in Bel Canto has a purpose. Gen, as an interpreter, is the only person who understands everyone. Patchett had to create a character that had a talent for languages in order for the story to work. Thibault, the Frenchman, who is mentioned here and there throughout, and his wife Edith come back into focus in the epilogue to witness the marriage of Gen and Roxane. We learn to sympathize with General Benjamin who eventually allows the hostages to go outside. Beatriz, the second female terrorist, plays the important role of catching Carmen in the act of helping the hostages. When Carmen tackles Beatriz on the bed, whispering in her ear, begging her not to give Hosokawa away, Beatriz recalls the words the priest has said to her. The priest has two important functions in the book: convincing Beatriz to be good, and bringing in the sheet music so that Roxane can sing.
This scene on the bed on page 257 is a peak in the storylines of Roxane and Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen, and Beatriz, the last rise before the climactic scene of the invasion. Here the conflict of terrorists vs. hostages is unraveled. The rebels have become sympathetic characters. Their lives are intertwined with the hostages.
Midway through Chapter Ten, just before the dénouement, Patchett recaps for us all of the bonds that the characters have created. We are reminded about Vice President Ruben’s affection for the terrorist Ishmael and about the Russians who have fallen in love with Roxane. We recall the priest, Thibault, and the new accompanist Kato. We hold all of their stories present in our thoughts just before everything changes.
All of the characters have merged, coming together on a beautiful, idyllic day after the hostages have finally been allowed to step outside. The Generals have relaxed, allowing them more freedom. They’ve become comfortable in new relationships, several captives even imagining that when this is all over they’ll be able to bring their favorite terrorist with them. Just as they’re adjusting to being allowed outside the insular world of the mansion, the couples separate. None of them are with their loved ones when the government invades. Carmen and Hosokawa and Cesar and Ishmael are killed in one fell swoop along with the Generals and the rest of the rebels. The reader is devastated, though we knew it was likely to happen.
Patchett begins and ends the novel in the same manner: with an abrupt invasion of a civil, pleasant scene. She tightly wraps the story in these bookends, yet kindly gives us the epilogue containing the unlikely marriage between Gen and Roxane. If she had ended the book with the massacre, it would have been too depressing. We want to know how the lives of these characters have changed because of the experience, what they’ve learned. We must be given some hope.