Bashing Bel Canto
It won the Orange
Prize and the Pen/Faulkner
it was a National Book Critics Circle
Award Finalist. The New York Times
and Entertainment Weekly lavished it
with praise. Accomplished authors like Robb Forman Dew
and Bret Anthony Johnston
And many of my smartest friends fell under its spell.
So it’s not easy for
me to take arms against Bel
and its accomplished author, Ann
Patchett. But without further preface I must do so:
lying very close to Mr. Hosokawa. He whispered something in Mr.
and the older man closed his eyes and nodded his head almost
Ruben had forgotten all about Mr. Hosokawa....Not too far from them was
Coss and her accompanist. She looked, if this was possible, even better
she had the night before. Her hair was loose and her skin glowed as if
been waiting for this opportunity to rest. “How are you?”
she mouthed in
English, and touched her hand to her own cheek to indicate her concern
injury. Perhaps it was the fact that he had had nothing to eat, maybe
exhaustion or blood loss or the onset of an infection, but at that
was quite sure he would faint....At that moment he noticed her
frankly did not look well at all. It seemed that if Roxane Coss was
extend such compassion to him she should take a look at the man lying
This passage highlights
Patchett’s penchant for overwriting.
By page 59 we know Gen is “the translator.” There’s
no need to remind us. But
that’s Patchett’s way. Earlier we learn Gen is
“helpful but not heroic by
nature” (41). Never mind whether helpfulness or heroic traits are
one’s genetic code. By page 41, a reader is aware of Gen’s
Using idioms like “at
that moment” twice in a paragraph is just
plain sloppy. So are rhetorical nothings like “if this was
possible” and “it
seemed that if.” Also, when Coss touches her own cheek, a reader
not need be
told it was “to indicate her concern for his injury.”
Either Patchett has a low
opinion of her readers, or she needs to rewrite the scene so Coss takes
Moreover, the passage is
awash in useless adverbs. The
accompanist “frankly” does not look well “at
all.” Hosokawa nods “almost
imperceptibly.” Ruben has forgotten “all about”
Hosokawa. Gen lies “very” close
to Hosokawa, who is “not too far” from Coss. How do any of
these modifiers add
The adverb problem
permeates the book. Some (“particularly,”
“remarkably” and “considerably”) come in
bunches (19-21, 201-203). Leaning on colloquialisms
can be fair game in first-person storytelling, in which authors aim to
authenticity of voice. But Patchett’s chitchat adverbs do
nothing. Why her
editor did not drown them in red ink baffles me. Worse, Patchett relies
often (47 times in 318 pages) on the vague adjective
“beautiful,” a broad word
that asks more questions than it answers. When you call something
beautiful” – an adverb-adjective pairing Patchett uses four
times – you are not
describing it, you are judging it in facile terms.
Then there’s the
narrator’s selective omniscience. The
book’s opening tropes (“It was a beautiful party, though no
one would remember
that”) lead the reader to believe the storyteller has the entire
tale in her
grasp (9). Yet she is imprecise in the same paragraph in which she is
omniscient, describing the accompanist as “a man in his thirties
from Sweden or Norway
with fine yellow hair and
beautiful, tapering fingers” (9). Which nation is he from? How
old is he? And what
the hell does it mean to have “beautiful” fingers?
Omniscient narrators ought to know.
You could dismiss my
criticisms with two words: soap opera.
By definition, a soap opera is “characterized by tangled
situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment.” By common
soap opera is light entertainment. It’s not to be given a
plausibility test. And
almost all of the characters on soap operas are, ahem, remarkably
Fittingly, Patchett invokes
soap operas throughout. There
are repeated references to Ruben Iglesias’s favorite, “The
Story of Maria.” This
title stands out in a book full of singsong Marias.
On page 15, we learn Hosokawa has enjoyed Maria Callas on
On page 200, we learn Cass performed “Ave Maria” at
story is all about music’s ability to incite melodrama.
It’s like “Glee”
set somewhere in South America (we
where) and uses opera instead of pop songs. Selective omniscience?
prose? Who cares, as long as everyone has a good time?
Judging by the abundance of rave
reviews on Amazon.com, I'm one of the few who did not.
Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by Glimmer Train.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the
Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts
Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also
written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.