Ann Patchett writes of normal, everyday people wrapped into situations that sparkle, and in some cases, bristle with life. Across all of her books -- including Patron Saint of Liars and Taft -- she has been able to create shimmering slices of life that enchant the reader as a story and linger in the mind as lessons in life. The term "character" is limiting in Patchett's work: Once introduced, each steps fully-developed onto the stage/page, seen in description just as a sculptor would flesh out his casts in marble and bronze. Even better, these wondrous people can talk and think and interact.
In Bel Canto, a failed kidnapping of a third-world Presidente forces one of the world's leading opera singers, plus four dozen other business and political leaders, into a hostage situation. The original target was absent from the scene because he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. The getaway as it was conceived falls apart within minutes, and as the outside world mobilizes outside the walls, the guerillas realize they are adrift without a plan; all that is left within their use are the dignitaries who had been attending the performance.
These captors don't torture or menace them as in some bad Stallone flick. Instead, the freedom fighters hunker down in the vice-presidential mansion, keeping their private fears to themselves as they interact with the outside world via a Red Cross intermediary drafted into the situation only because he happened to be nearby on vacation. A local priest volunteers to stay with the group when women, children and household servants are released. The quiet translator to a Japanese business exec finds himself in demand to communicate between the Spanish, Russian, Japanese, English and others gathered as unlikely roommates under one roof.
The reader can feel the time steadily ticking in the background, and is occasionally given glimpses of what the captives imagine as the worst possible outcome. Patchett then switches right back to the next scene so that the book gains its gravity as a novel of small dramas between citizens of the world.
Finally, what rises triumphant above the anxiety and interpersonal relationships is the music. Time and again, Patchett shows how this gift of a voice in the opera singer (yet a gift which needs maintenance, a crucial aspect of the developments) can indeed soothe the savage beast, stop time for the listeners, allowing them to drift away from their immediate concerns into a place that's safe and inspiring somewhere in the hearts and minds. Nothing can hover in that golden glow forever, and to give away the ending here would rob the book of its finest achievement -- an ending that's just as believable, emotional and satisfying as every page of the book up until that point.
Because of the enviable spark that imbues Bel Canto, it led me to pull Pocket Muse off the shelf. The key to the Muse is that the real magic resides in the mind of the reader. Bursting with quirky, short romps of the imagination, this is an ideal gift book, both for a friend, a writer, an artist and, especially, for you. If you delight in thinking up fresh flights of fancy, putting thought bubbles overhead of people you pass on the street, or in any way relish the chance to spin a little Rapunzel-like daydreaming, you'll find you can't put this book down except to reach for a piece of paper to capture your thoughts before they fly away.
Monica Wood, a strong fiction writer in her own right, has assembled this verbal and visual treat, providing a reassuring voice plus completely charming conundrums between the photos on the page and the words alongside, making the reader's synapses snap and sing in response.
Both Bel Canto and Pocket Muse have been selected as BookSense 76 titles, which signifies that independent booksellers from sea to shining sea have selected these titles, and many other wonderful works, to be their favorites in recommending to their patrons. If you're looking for something great to read after these two choices, seek out this list at your local store, and you'll be treated to a bounty of original voices and riveting written accounts of the life that surrounds us.