February 22, 2012

Ann Patchett's Writing: Lots to Love

by Jan Newman

Ann Patchett is the perfect author to read in February because her writing and storytelling is about love. Not only the romantic kind, but in all its best forms. Bel Canto, for instance, is a novel of love for opera, life, self, and of one special other. People die for love in Bel Canto, even as they learn to live. The story and the characters almost made me want to be taken hostage in a third-world villa. Then I might fall in love the way Mr. Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss, or Gen and Carmen, did.

The Japanese businessman inadvertently caused the hostage situation. He developed a passion for opera as a child. As a grown man, married with grown children, he fell in love with a recorded voice. Roxanne Coss was the world's most beautiful, celebrated soprano. Because Mr. Hosokawa loved her voice so much, he agreed to visit a South American nation that promised him a birthday party with Roxanne singing in person. Mr. Hosokawa had no intention of doing business in the nation and no business imposing on their generosity. But he couldn't resist the chance to see and hear his beloved soprano in person. As captives, the only language they had in common was music till they found another—love. 

Mr. Hosokawa's young translator, Gen, fell in love with the beauty, soul, and thirst for learning he found in Carmen, one of the guerillas. He opened up to her a world of education. She fired his dormant heart. How could I not long for such a passion of my own?

Or I might find a talent to nurture, like Cesar, the boy terrorist with his fabulous, untrained voice whom Roxanne tutors as if he truly has a chance to go from jungle guerilla to world-class tenor.

Maybe I'd leave behind my love of self like Father Arguedas, who refused to abandon the other hostages and their captors. No one really wanted him to stay, but the young man was so glad for the chance to serve fully as a priest that he remained to save souls.

There's also renewal and rediscovery. Simon Thibault in his loneliness rediscovered his love and desire for his wife, waiting for him outside. Without the shock of this protracted hostage situation, Simon would have drifted in a marriage where he forgot to appreciate the most valuable thing in his life.

In spite of the voices of reality and impending doom, the characters learn to hope for peace and a better life beyond captivity. All does not end well, yet good things survive. Through her extreme examples of terror and stress, Patchett reminds us to slow down, look deeply, even at those people we feel trapped with. Who are they? Who are we? What possibilities are we overlooking? What do the worst situations have to offer for growth, maybe even salvation?

Love, she advises. Don't discriminate. Love and hope.

Jan Rider Newman is publisher and coeditor with Jessica R. Ferguson of Swamp Lily Review:  A Journal of Louisiana Literature and Arts. She has published short stories, nonfiction, and poetry in A Small, Good Journal, a juried Vision/Verse competition, the New Orleans Review, the Denver QuarterlyLouisiana LiteratureOasis Journal, and in two anthologies published by the Gulf Coast Writers’ Association. Jan earned an MFA in creative writing after studying with Robert Olen Butler.  She is webmaster for the Bayou Writers’ Group and a member of She Writes. She's written book reviews for The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, LitStack, and The New Book Review blog. Jan blogs at Beyond Acadia:  Reading, Writing & Living Well, has a website, and is on Twitter as @Jangaler and @SwampLilyReview.

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