Listening to La Wally in South America

Scorecard for July to Sept is as follows:

  • Orange July 1 2 3
  • Around the World: Africa: 1, 2 Asia 1 South America 1 2 3 4 5 6 Other countries 1 2 3 4
  • 1001 Books 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
  • Nobel: July Aug Sept
  • Pulitzer: July Aug Sept
  • Great African Reads: July Aug Sept

As I rated this book, I remembered my experience as an undergraduate at Brown, where there were no plus or minus grades: we had A B C or no credit (for which we affectionately substituted “no cookies”). Presumably at a place that has such an admissions weeding process, there isn’t going to be much poor academic work, so the lack of a D makes sense. But we used to bemoan how wide a B came to feel. I’m realizing that maybe what felt like a really wide B was the reality for our professors, since I am finding that I have the same experience now assigning my rating of 4. Most of what I read is pretty spectacular stuff, but I am VERY stingy with my 5s. And most of what I read is really much better than a simple 3. So I give a lot of fours. I don’t give a lot of low fours, actually; if it is a 3.5, I tend to give it a 3 and tell you in the review that it is a 3.5 (in retrospect, thanks to the Brown professors who were kind enough to make those decisions the other way!). But I also give some things like Bel Canto a 4 when it is a 4.5 or a 4.75. I’m pretty sure that there are some other 4s in my ratings that are also very high fours. I guess what I am saying is please read all these 4-rated books. I am just REALLY stingy with my 5s. Hopefully some of those Bs I sweated so hard for at Brown were like these fours. I’d certainly like to think so.

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Suddenly, clearly, he could see her, the way he had been able to see her at twenty, not her physical self at twenty, because in every sense she was more beautiful to him now, but he felt that old sensation, the leaping of his heart, the reckless flush of desire. He would find her in the house, cutting fresh paper to line the shelves or lying across their bed on her stomach writing letters to their daughters who were attending university in Paris, and he was breathless. Had she always been like this, had he never known? Had he known and then somehow, carelessly, forgotten? In this country with its dirt roads and yellow rice he discovered he loved her, he was her. Perhaps this would not have been true if he had been the ambassador to Spain. Without these particular circumstances, this specific and horrible place, he might never have realized that the only true love of his life was his wife.

This passage about Ambassador Simon Thibault’s discovery of his life in the crisis of his assignment to a third-world country, is really what the entire novel Bel Canto is about. In the circumstances of the crisis set in motion in the novel’s early pages, each of the book’s central characters finds his or her own version of Thibault’s insight. For some it is love of a person, for some it is some undiscovered or undeveloped facet of himself, but for all, it is finding something at the core which makes life rich and meaningful.

The book begins at a party. It is a birthday party thrown for a wealthy Japanese manufacturer that the unnamed South American country’s administration hopes to persuade to build a factory in their nation. It is at the home of the country’s under-appreciated Vice President, and the magnate is finally persuaded to come only when his favorite soprano is also invited to sing at the party. The assembled guests are mostly the elite of the country, as well as a few Japanese and foreign executives whose business might follow if the factory were to be built. In addition, a local priest with a profound love of opera has managed to receive an invitation through the intervention of a friend. The country’s President should be there, but at the last moment cancels to stay home and watch his favorite soap opera. As the soprano finishes her final selection, the lights go out, and the party is invaded by a band of rebels intent on kidnapping the President and taking him hostage. In time they discover their mistake, and the novel unfolds as they improvise a backup plan with a house full of new hostages.

Ann Patchett will make you crave opera tickets, even if you have never wanted them before. She will make you see the myriad beauties in a single day, as you fall in love with her well-crafted characters. You will join with the characters in their dread and their denial. And at the book’s close, you may well be breathless and haunted. This book deserved the Orange Prize and the other prizes and nominations it received. For me this was a 4.5. Marvelous.


About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Associate Professor of Psychology at Lamar University. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
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