Sunday, 19 June 2016

Bel Canto - a stalled project

I am supposed to be reading Ann Patchett's Bel Canto for my book group but, to be honest,
I am struggling, The first issue is the plot - it follows the exploits of a group of people who are taken hostage at a party (held in an unnamed Latin American country) by rather hapless kidnappers. The kidnappers' intended target, the country's president, has stayed at home to watch his favourite soap opera, so they have make to do with the assorted members of the party (including a Japanese CEO and an opera singer).

I can get passed the somewhat ludicrous set up (i.e. that the president is at home watching telly) but given recent awful events, it's difficult to imagine a hostage situation being as (relatively) amicable as the one in the book is described. In fairness to Patchett, Bel Canto was written before 911 (it was published in 2001, so I'm guessing she wrote it around 2000 etc.) and subsequent events. Therefore, she would have written it at a time when people storming into a building with guns (while still fairly terrifying) wasn't synonymous with the horrific carnage that it is today. But, it's hard to read about a situation you know would play out very differently in real life.

Apparently, the book was inspired by the 1996 Japanese embassy hostage crisis, which brings me to second issue I have with this book. I am not sure it's Patchett's place to write about it. As far as I can tell (or as far as Wikipedia can tell me), Patchett hasn't lived in Latin America at any point (and going by her picture, doesn't have any Latin American heritage). Therefore, I do wonder whether her lack of direct experience means she's poorly qualified to write about Latin America politics - even if she is doing it in a light hearted way.

I am questioning it because I have done a complete about turn on the book Me Before You. When I read it, I liked it and thought it was your above average romance. But the recent furore over the film adaptation (including the criticism that it suggests your life is not worth living if you're disabled) has made me question whether authors should write about things that they do not have direct experience of. Had a disabled author, rather than the able-bodied JoJo Moyles, written Me Before You, they may have still been criticised but at least they would have been less likely to be accused of "ableism".

Obviously, authors can't always have direct experience  - I wouldn't suggest that Patchett would need to live through a hostage situation, for example, before she was able to write Bel Canto. But, sometimes I think we need to question if the story we're reading is that author's story to tell,

My third issue, and perhaps the most important, is that it's fairly slow going. If -  as the book jacket claims - it was a novel "you simply can't put down", I'd probable care less about issues one and two (or rather not dwell on them as much).  I am halfway in and not much has happened that couldn't have been covered in the first quarter. According to some reviews I've seen, it picks up as you go further in but I don't think I am interested enough to continue. Also, I am not that invested in the characters - the male hostages seem interchangeable despite being nominally very different (ranging from a priest to a Japanese CEO) and the main female character is a bit of a stereotype.

She's an opera singer (hence title of book) with an exquisite voice who seems to charm and enchant her fellow hostages and kidnappers alike. Urgh, seriously? I would expect a male author to come up with the tired old trope of a woman with the power to charm all and sundry but a female author? Maybe I have lived a sheltered life, but I have never encountered a woman that men fall helplessly in love in with. From what I've read from the reviews, her power over men is fairly central to the plot as time goes on - but wouldn't it be a nice to have a normal looking woman with average powers of attraction. If men are allowed to be average joes in fiction, why can't women be?

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