Review: Bel Canto (Ann Patchett)

When I was fourteen or fifteen I read a trashy romance novel called Perfect by Judith McNaught. It was about a Hollywood superstar (male, ruggedly handsome) framed for the murder of his wife, escaping from jail and taking a hostage (female, beautiful, feisty) in his bid for freedom. They drive across the country to his remote log cabin in snowy mountains, bonding along the way despite their implacably opposed positions in the situation. Yet even as she gradually comes to believe he is an innocent man, and he is falling more and more in love with her despite himself, the fact that she is important only as his shield from police gunfire lurks continually in the background. Things come to a head one night in the cabin. His paranoia explodes into fury. Terrified, she tries to escape. In pursuit, he comes to a frozen river and thinks her car has gone through the ice. He plunges in to try and rescue her, risking his own life. She saves him, and from then on they take on the world, prove his innocence and celebrate their new-found love. He takes her to parties in Hollywood and she dances with Patrick Swayze and Kevin Costner. Happy ever after. The end.

Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) is Perfect, minus the great sex. Terrorists storm posh party in poor Latin-American country hoping to take President hostage, but it turns out the President skipped the party in order to watch his favourite soap opera. Yes, really. Terrorists say “Oh, poo” but decide to keep everyone else hostage anyway. Japanese CEO of behemoth electronics corporation and opera singer fall madly in love despite the small glitch of not being able to speak the same language. Everyone else also falls madly in love with opera singer, by the way, because she’s beautiful and her voice is wonderful, wonderful, Maria Callas and Kiri Te Kanawa eat your hearts out; it makes grown men cry and gives young terrorists hard-ons in ways that jungle warfare never did; no one can think of anything more wonderful than sitting and listening to her sing all day, every day, because of course everyone loves opera. CEO’s translator and young girl terrorist called Carmen (aha, allusion!) also fall madly in love, but oh my God, she’s a terrorist and he’s a hostage, how will it all end?

[Spoilers follow]

It ends, my friends, in tragedy. The terrorists have been making ridiculous demands – freeing of prisoners, aid programmes, a Playstation 2 for every member of the organization etc., and the government won’t budge. Special forces decide after a couple of months of sitting around scratching their balls that yeah, they should probably storm the compound. In a cruel twist of fate, Japanese CEO is killed trying to protect Carmen the girl terrorist (I forgot to mention that all the hostages and the terrorists really get along by now. It’s quite a love-in. They play football and all, although I think the Latin-American Terrorists vs Japanese Electronics Corporation People fixture would have been a bit of a foregone conclusion). Translator and opera singer are heartbroken. How will they recover from this loving and losing? They will marry each other, that’s how, even if they displayed not a jot of romantic interest in each other all the time they were imprisoned (well, the translator did proposition the opera singer for sex, but that was on behalf of the CEO). They marry in Puccini’s birthplace, and will live in Italy, where opera singers should live. Happy ever after. The end.

I’m thinking the people who gave this book the Orange Prize and Pen/Faulkner Award must have seen something in it that I’m not seeing. I’m thinking I wasted a few days’ worth of reading time on this. I’m thinking Judith McNaught should be sitting in a room somewhere really pissed off.