On June 15th, Wallingford Public Library's Thursday Night Book Club met to discuss Ann Patchett's award winning novel, Bel Canto. Set in an unnamed third world country but inspired by the 1996 hostage crisis at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru, Bel Canto is the story of a group of dignitaries and businessmen, and one very famous opera singer, held hostage by a terrorist group known as La Familia de Martin Suarez. Over the course of what becomes a four-month hostage situation, the lines between the hostages and the terrorists begin to blur, and the connections that develop around music, chess, cooking, and soccer, and above all, around love, begin to obscure the reality of the situation. As one of the hostages notes, "Who knew that life could be so unexpected? I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead than regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera."
Our discussion began with a brief synopsis of Patchett's life and writing career (in addition to Bel Canto, Patchett is the author of the novels The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Run, State of Wonder, and Commonwealth, an essay collection entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Truth & Beauty, a memoir about Patchett's friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, and What Now, a book containing Patchett's 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College). We also discussed Patchett's opening of an independent bookstore in 2011 at a time when bookstores, and books themselves, were thought to be on the decline, and how Patchett has become a champion of independent bookstores and of reading.
While there were a few members of the book club who could not engage with the novel's story or characters, most of us enjoyed the book a great deal. There was general agreement about the high, almost lyrical, quality of Patchett's writing and about the intensity of the setting and the plot. We spent the majority of our time together talking with increasing amounts of energy about the ending of the novel. Most of us felt that the book ended abruptly and somewhat shockingly, and that the brief and startling epilogue was jarring and a little uncomfortable. Members of the club offered theories for why Patchett chose to end the novel as she did, some more complimentary than others. What seems clear is that many of us had grown very attached to several of the characters in the novel, and we wanted to know more about them, especially about what happened to the hostages after they were freed. While the ending of Bel Canto may have left some of the members of the book club dissatisfied, the group's discussion of the novel was feisty, engaged and very satisfying indeed.
Join us at 7 pm on July 20th when we will be discussing Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell. Copies of the book are available at the Information Desk.