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BlogJanuary-February, 2011
Bashing Bel Canto

It won the Orange Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award and 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 lauded it. And many of my smartest friends fell under its spell.

So it’s not easy for me to take arms against Bel Canto and its accomplished author, Ann Patchett. But without further preface I must do so:

Gen the translator was lying very close to Mr. Hosokawa. He whispered something in Mr. Hosokawa’s ear and the older man closed his eyes and nodded his head almost imperceptibly. Ruben had forgotten all about Mr. Hosokawa....Not too far from them was Roxane Coss and her accompanist. She looked, if this was possible, even better than she had the night before. Her hair was loose and her skin glowed as if she had 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 for his injury. Perhaps it was the fact that he had had nothing to eat, maybe it was exhaustion or blood loss or the onset of an infection, but at that moment he was quite sure he would faint....At that moment he noticed her accompanist, who frankly did not look well at all. It seemed that if Roxane Coss was able to extend such compassion to him she should take a look at the man lying next to her (59).

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 inscribed in one’s genetic code. By page 41, a reader is aware of Gen’s dutiful generosity.

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 a more revealing action.

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 clarity?

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 establish 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 too 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 “very 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 interpersonal situations and melodramatic or sentimental treatment.” By common knowledge, a 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 beautiful.

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 his headphones. On page 200, we learn Cass performed “Ave Maria” at mass. Patchett’s story is all about music’s ability to incite melodrama. It’s like “Glee” except its set somewhere in South America (we never learn where) and uses opera instead of pop songs. Selective omniscience? Imprecise 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.

 
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Ilan Mochari