When Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House was making waves earlier this year (or late last year?), lots of bloggers and readers whose opinions I respect said that it was fine, but couldn’t hold a candle to Bel Canto. I had been drawn in by the reviews of The Dutch House, but since I’ve never read any Patchett at all, I trusted everyone else and bought a copy. I tried to read it twice at the height of lockdown, but my scattered concentration couldn’t cope with anything so slow-paced and meditative. I’ve just given it the third-time-lucky go, and overall I am pleased that I did.
At the start of the story, the wealthy and renowned Japanese business owner, Mr Hosokawa, is celebrating his birthday in an unnamed South American country, enticed by a promise that his favourite opera singer Roxane Coss would perform for him personally. The country’s leaders hope that, by putting on this ostentatious show for him, they might tempt him to build a factory and boost the nation’s economy. However, at the last minute, the President chooses to stay home and watch his favourite soap opera. This means that, when armed terrorists storm the party to kill him, they’re out of luck. At a loss as to how to proceed, they end up taking all 100+ guests at the party plus the staff and anyone else in the mix hostage. The novel covers the unfolding of this situation and the development of relationships among these people who are suddenly trapped together for a period of many months.
I think that you will get a good idea about whether you’ll enjoy this from the following fact: Patchett tells us within the first chapter who ultimately wins the standoff. She has absolutely no interest in telling a tense story about a high-stakes hostage situation. The novel is entirely concerned with the effect that this situation has on the captives and their captors. In essence, it’s an oddly romantic treatment of Stockholm syndrome. As the terrorists and party guests get used to the new way of things working, friendships and romances blossom, both within and between the two groups. Patchett’s writing style is stunning, and she develops the characters wonderfully. Most of them are complex and three-dimensional by the end of the book, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Perhaps the high point of the book, for me, was the Vice President, who during the novel learns to look after the property where he has lived for years (no more servants), and finds that he loves the house more because of it. He’s introduced as a rather petty man, and to see his kindness and humilty grow is one of the pleasures of the book.
Some of the characters were less believable, notably Roxane Coss (or at least, everyone’s reaction to Roxane Coss). Every man in that house, more or less, falls in love with her within a few days of the situation. It was not plausible to me, admittedly a cynic, that an entire house full of fifty men would all simultaneously and immediately fall in love with one female stranger. This is particularly the case since one of them has supposedly not been attracted to anyone since he was fourteen (he’s now 27)! Truly, in a of this many men, it seems statistically unlikely that all of them would have precisely the same taste in women. For a start, surely a few of them should have no strong feelings about women? Her magnetism is chalked up to her extraordinary voice, but it simply does not ring true that they would all fall for her. Roxane never gets to develop as a character herself. If it wasn’t for Ann Patchett’s name on the front, I would assume this novel had been written by a middle-aged man about forty years ago, so much is she reduced to being the focus of male fantasy. When she does express personality, she is the stereotype of an artistic diva – demanding expensive eye cream gets sent to her from Paris while everyone else wonders whether they will live, and yet for some reason all the men jump to it. Due to the novel’s connection with music, I wondered if she would turn out to be a literal siren, but if that was there it was much too subtle for me to see it. A great deal of the story hangs on this – at least to start with – and because I found it unbelievable as a premise, it took me a long time to warm up to the story.
Once I did warm up, though, I found myself enjoying it. Perhaps it’s the great love of music that the novel conveys. I imagine it would be more meaningful to someone who has more extensive knowledge and understanding of music in general (and opera in particular) than me. I listen to classical music often and have my favourite pieces (perhaps the most believable part of the novel for me was when a beautiful rendition of O Mio Babbino Caro entirely overrode a hostile negotiation). However, despite coming from a family of accomplished musicians, I have no technical knowledge about music and couldn’t even explain why I love the pieces that I do. Someone with proper knowledge of the field might well have seen clues and subtext in the music that I missed. It would have been nice to see other music represented in the novel – loving Puccini does not stop me from loving Ella Fitzgerald or Madness or Queen. The novel does seem to believe that it’s opera or nothing, but even so I enjoyed the way Patchett writes about what it’s like to listen to beautiful music.
Bel Canto humanises the young terrorists who act at the behest of their generals, and the novel generally treats them like child soldiers. I really enjoyed that element of it, finding it to be an interesting exploration of some quite complex issues, but it then left me confused later on. Perhaps it was supposed to. Initially, I had the impression that the younger terrorists were in their early to mid-teens – but one of them subsequently embarks on a romance with a grown man, which is definitely meant to be a romance and not a creepy abuse of power, and in that section of the novel most of those characters read as young adults. It felt like Patchett wanted to have her cake and eat it, emphasising the vulnerability and childlikeness of these young revolutionaries, but then treating them like adults in the next minute. Assuming they are adults, I’m less convinced by their naivety and innocence. They did, after all, storm a building, armed, with the intention of assassinating someone or at least holding him to ransom. By the end of the novel, I think we are meant to be empathising with them. There’s space for that for that in a well-written novel, but these are not nuanced villains – they are sympathetic and likeable characters. It’s as if Patchett herself succumbs to the Stockholm syndrome of the captives – somehow vanishing guns and criminal intent into the ether, concentrating only on the powerful emotional bond that develops between the two groups.
There is also an ethical question at the heart of how the story is told. Patchett, a US citizen, used as a starting point the true story of the Japanese embassy crisis in Peru (1996-7), though she changed many of the details, and the country goes unnamed in the novel. That in itself doesn’t bother me. Other people might feel differently, but if e.g. a novelist from another country used the Grenfell Tower fire to inspire a story, I wouldn’t find it inherently unethical (though I probably wouldn’t read the book). However, in my research during and after reading the novel, I found that Ann Patchett has said in interviews that she didn’t name the country because when she published the book (2001) she didn’t think anyone would still remember or care about something that happened “years ago” in a South American country. I saw some reviews by Peruvian readers who were, understandably, quite upset about someone using something that had years-long ripple effects on their country just to tell a good story, while simultaneously dismissing out of hand the importance of the events she was writing about. I don’t subscribe to the “only ever write your exact identity or you are inherently exploitative” school of literary criticism, which is deeply tedious and would also eliminate some of my all-time favourite novels from the literary canon*. However, I think making a profit from a story while also belittling the entire country where the incident took place is tasteless at best. I don’t normally pick up on these types of things in reviews – but because this is so obviously based on a true story, I don’t feel like it’s possible to separate the novel from the author’s comments about it.
This novel is well-written – enough that I will certainly pick up more of Patchett’s work – but I did not like the story very much. There was also an epilogue that I did not care for at all, though to avoid the risk of spoilers I don’t think I can explain why. So why am I glad I read it? I think it must just be the quality of the prose (or perhaps the fact that I listened to all the songs and pieces as she named them, and discovered some new-to-me favourites). Patchett is a genius at developing interesting characters in just a few words, and at constructing a lovely style. I don’t think I could pull out any individual quote that struck me, but sentence after sentence the writing drew me in. In this instance, she didn’t turn those skills to a story that appealed, but she is certainly a writer whose back catalogue I will explore. Also, everyone in the world has read an Ann Patchett novel before me, so here’s a question: which one should I read next?
*I think Kit de Waal has written one of the best pieces on the internet about the complicated issue of writing in someone else’s voice, though that’s not precisely the problem at play here. It can be found here if you’re interested.