Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Book Review - Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

You know that you are reading a Book Club book when there is an appendix of special features including, "How to Fall In Love With Opera" and a series of suggested topics for further discussion.

Middlebrow is the word that kept springing to mind as I read it. It's certainly not "chick-lit" (there are zero shopping sprees and very little in the way of heaving chests) but with writing like this, it is not really deserving of serious consideration either.

While certainly lyrical enough (believe me the musical allusions are not tough to find), it is rife with purple passages that include the "drinking in" of various peoples souls and so on. "Gen's head was filled with Carmen" is the kind of stuff that makes my teeth ache.

The passages about music are worse. Which, to be fair, writing about music is really difficult - witness how even the most knowledgeable reviewers are prone to near meaningless cliches in their critique. The media simply don't lend well to each other and Ms. Patchett at least infuses Opera with a romantic enthusiasm. It's just that it's all, well, over-zealous.

Like here where a young boy sings in public for the first time after listening raptly (with bursting pants, no less) to the soprano in captivity:
He didn't seem to hear them laughing. His gaze was unfocused.
He was singing to no one in particular. It wasn't that he was mocking her
so much as he was just trying to fill up the space where she should have
been. It would have been mocking if it had only been her gestures he
was repeating, but it wasn't. It was her voice. The legendary
voice of Roxane Coss. He held his notes long and clear. He
reached down into the depths of his lungs for power, the volume he had not
allowed himself when singing alone under his breath. He was singing
now, a par that was too high for him and yet he jumped up and grabbed
onto the edge of the note. He pulled himself up and held it.

Is it a good story? Sure. Is it romantic? Absolutely. But as much as she is a good story teller and holds readers' attention with passable, even cinematic character development, there is a sneaking suspicion one gains early on that the power of music is going to save the day.

Does it? Not really. The ending is, in fact both well-earned and surprising. Which is cool, especially since I only had to groan through 315 pages to get there.

No comments: