Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nose in a book.

I've had my nose in a few books lately, and I wanted to weigh in. First of all, I picked up Ann Patchett's bel canto this week. WOW. I loved this book, and I think you will, too.

In an unnamed South American country, government officials are throwing an elaborate birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, the CEO of a vast Japanese electronics company. The officials are hoping to dazzle him into locating a factory within their borders, bringing jobs and prosperity to the nation. To lure Mr. Hosokawa to the party, an exclusive live performance by famed opera singer Roxana Coss has been scheduled. (Hosokawa is a huge opera fan, and Coss is his favorite soprano.)

The evening is on its way to a successful conclusion when a group of armed terrorists storm the party, looking for the country's president as a high-profile hostage. Unable to find him in the raid (he unexpectedly did not attend the evening's festivities), the terrorists are forced to concoct Plan B, which involves taking everyone hostage. This plan is eventually amended to trading the most valuable hostages (re: top government officials, diplomats from other countries, leading businessmen) in return for the satisfaction of the terrorists' demands.

As negotiations between the authorities and the terrorists drag on, the hostages (all type A personalities) begin to learn how to do, well, nothing. They form bonds with one another and get to know their captors. They look out windows. They leaf through magazines. They learn new languages, play and listen to music, and cook. The hostage situation becomes a rather unique vacation from their normal lives, and the characters begin to adapt to the situation.

A Japanese businessman surprises everyone with his talent for piano. One of the terrorists can sing, and the opera singer sets about teaching him proper technique. A French diplomat relishes his time in the kitchen, chopping up onions and roasting chickens for the assemblage. Some of the characters find love in one another's arms. Their time together becomes the beautiful song of the book's title. A time for reflection, beauty, love, and friendship. But it is also a time of forgetting. Everyone avoids thinking about how the situation must end and what the government will eventually do to force the hands of the terrorists and get the hostages released. Because, as both the characters and the readers know, all songs must come to a close.

I know it sounds like a far-fetched premise for a book, but you will love every minute of this story. The characters are wonderfully drawn, and Patchett's soaring passages about music and careful sketches of human relationships will leave you refreshed and inspired. Don't miss this one.

I also finally got around to reading Love in the Time of Cholera. This tome by Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been on my list a while, and, having read it, I might suggest Obsession in the Time of Cholera as a more apt name.

The book, set in the Carribbean in the late 1800s, tells us first of the first young romance between Fermina Daza, a school-girl with an overbearing father, and Florentino Ariza, a young, poor man (and an illigitemate child, no less) with a penchant for the nostalgic/romantic side of life. Florentino first sees Fermina walking to school with her spinster aunt and falls immediately and hopelessly in love with her. He quickly arranges to send her secret love notes, serenade her on the violin, and write flowery poems in her honor. Eventually, he asks her to marry him. Fermina begrudgingly agrees to the engagement, but only if it can be kept secret from her father until she is older and more secure in her ability to assert her will. Florentino assents.

However, when Fermina's father discovers the plan (long before the appointed time), he whisks his young daughter off on a long trip. Absence, rather than making the heart grow fonder, convinces Fermina that she does not, in fact, love Florentino. Later, after father and daughter return home, Fermina breaks her engagement to Florentino, eventually marrying a young, rich doctor with a respected family name.

While Fermina does not seem to feel a riot of emotion for her intended, she realizes that she is making the right choice. The couple goes on to live a happy life together, raising two children and playing an active role in public life. (I found it interesting that the man Fermina eventually chooses to marry is the polar opposite of Florentino. Where Florentino longs for the nostalgic, wearing clothes long out of style and clinging to a way of writing/courting/living that is representative of the past, Fermina's husband is all about progress and modernity. Marquez created a nice dichotomy with the two men in Fermina's life.)

Rather than dusting himself off and moving on, Florentino nurses and cherishes his rejected love. While he has many sexual relationships (most of them unobjectionable, though the final one is disgustingly awful and wrong), he never marries. He hopes and prays for the day when Fermina will be free again. By the end of the novel, the reader begins to see what such single-minded devotion has resulted in.

The book is rather long and very slow-moving, but it does an excellent job of character development. In addition, Marquez has a talent for descriptive writing, and I loved reading passages about the city the characters lived in.

And while some might characterize this book as a story of enduring love (the love of Florentino for Fermina), boy does it make "love" look unhealthy. Florentino does not love Fermina. When he asks her to marry him, he barely even knows her. When she jilts him, he still barely even knows her. And yet he hangs onto to his obsession with her, carefully feeding it throughout his entire life, until he's a dirty old man. He finds solace in sexual escapades with widows, unattached women, and eventually a VERY young girl whom he's supposed to be serving as guardian for (sick, sick, sick) while he waits for Fermina's husband to kick the bucket so he can swoop in.

Just because you dress it up in poetry and moonlight violin serenades does not make it love. Today, Florentino would be called a stalker and probably face harassment charges. I think that the book is so named because the kind of "love" that Florentino has is a sickness, just like cholera. And its side effects are no less damaging.

Meanwhile, Fermina did not seem to really love either of the men in the book. She made decisions that she felt were the right course of action, but, even when she was engaged to Florentino, and even when she later married the doctor, Marquez does not describe her as caught up in the throes of love. She seems much too . . . practical . . . for that.

At any rate, I found this to be a rich, atmospheric novel with realistically delineated characters, but it was a story of waste and obessession rather than one of love. I finished reading with a bit of a hopeless feeling. Not a quick read or an uplifting one.


Sandi said...

Your review makes me want to read Bel Canto ... recommend that one for next month's book club. Hope you like Possession.

Nicole Bradshaw said...

Can't wait to read it. Oh, and I dug out my copy of Byatt's Angels and Insects. It's two novellas. I've read the first one (Morpho Eugenia), but not the second. I'll try to remember to bring it to our next book club meeting.

Sandi said...

Please do ... I'd love to read it.