Right next to the fiction desk where I often sit, we have bags that are called Book Club Kits – 10 copies of the book with a reading guide packaged in a large canvas bag. The idea is that people can check out the whole bag, and everyone in the book club can have a copy of the book to read. It’s a nifty and popular idea. The problem is that people are always asking me to recommend books from this collection to them – not just for book clubs, but because they figure they must be especially good books. Why is it that book clubs seem to favor depressing books? I have read very few of the books in the collection because I’m just not that into reading depressing books. But, as a good librarian, it’s my duty to serve my patrons, and so I resolved to read more of the book club books. Here’s the first one:
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett A poor Latin American country tries to curry favor with a Japanese business man by hiring his favorite soprano to sing at a birthday party for him. A group of terrorists decides that this would be the perfect opportunity for kidnapping the president, and take everyone at the party hostage when they find that the president isn’t in attendance. Yes, there is great potential for unhappiness in this scenario, and the ending, I feel bound to warn you, merits at least a hanky or two. But in the meantime, the book is not a thriller, but a lyrical exploration of the people involved. It feels kind of like A Chorus Line, where the characters come under the spotlight one at a time and spill their guts for us, but with music by Chopin or Verdi. It also explores in loving detail what happens to the characters as they adapt to their new lives and forget the reality of the outside world. The reader, like the characters, is tempted to forget that hostage situations just don’t have happy endings for everyone concerned.
I listened to this book, performed by Anna Fields. She has a lovely rich voice, which is very nice for a book where the beauty of the voice features prominently. But she has difficulty differentiating between her male voices, a problem when the vast majority of the characters are men. And, while most of her accents are passable, her Japanese accent sounds remarkably similar to the French. Don’t ask me to explain this. These quibbles aside, I’d still recommend listening to the book, as her reading makes it that much more intimate an experience.