We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

A Question of Cream Puffs: Patchett's _Bel Canto_ · 2 February 05

Dear Nobody,

Yesterday I wrote a posting on WW (Women Writers Through the Ages is the name of this list), which made some of the people conclude I thought Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto junk—or that terrible thing horrible people call "chick-lit." It’s not. And in case my blog column on her The Magician’s Assistant similarly misleads anyone who could possibly happen by, I will post this commentary on my blog about Patchett’s Bel Canto.

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is a highly
intelligent, witty, entertaining novel. Probably _The Magician’s
Assisant_ belongs to a Book-of-the-Month Club
selection—though some of its matter might be unsettling
to the dowdy crowd, particularly in the first half of the
book (when the heroine describes her life in LA as a
magician’s assistant where the magician is homosexual).
But Bel Canto did deserve its prizes (Orange, Pen/
Faulkner) and doubtless is pleasing many readers in
the niches for which these prizes are intended.

It is a cream puff—or at least to me it is. As Sayers’s
books are cream puffs to those whose needs and dreams
that intelligent woman wrote to. A cream puff in
a steel cup. The steel is in the constant undercutting
ironies, the deaths at the end, the use of a real
incident, and the continual scepticism about life as
a game played this and that way, depending on the
circumstances and props you happen to end up
surrounded by. Life’s not a battle because it’s so
irrational that chance undercuts effort, and achievement
is an illusion. She has wonderful vibes and nuances
about how people go about life daily as if what they
are doing is so solemn and serious when not only
is it catch as catch can—safety a dream because
you never know what’s coming around the corner
next—it’s filled with vanities and dreams which
keep people apart. Each person makes others
part of their dreams. These are the sorts of lines
of thought and themes that provide the steel, the
rapier. And she’s well aware that dreams of cruelty
abound. Every once in a while the curtain is pulled
up and we see a gesture, glimpse terror and utter
total deprivation and injustice.

The cream though is what is kept pushed out by
the cream maker. What is it? (I read the book today
while I had my kiddies do in-class scribbling. Tomorrow
I’ll race to see how fast I can give each scribble a
check.) It’s kindness. Her two books are filled with
acts of kindness. Ann Patchett understands the
real nature of kindness, its source and how to do
it, and she has her characters perform acts of
kindness continually and with inimitable grace.
Her characters are in life together, stuck and
they pity one another, identify, value each other.
Now in life people tend not to practice kindness
partly because they can’t be bothered, they don’t
have the impulse and they are also taught not
to sometimes through experience, sometimes
explicitly. The last few years of public life
we’ve had a celebration of toxic unkindness.
But we still do recognize it when we see it.
And she’s not smaltzy. The kindness is brisk,
tactful, not tender except in its results.

This makes for comforting reading. For solace.
We are ever doing kindness or being a recipient.

Bel Canto also does place at its center the
beauty of music and how it illuminates experience.
I hadn’t realize how central this is to the book.
Of course this is comfort too. You are made
to feel music is powerful in and of itself—when
in reality guns are. She has a rich skein of
allusion to opera I don’t begin to pick up—though I’m trying.

So I don’t mean to say Patchett is junk.
It’s true that In The Magician’s Assistant we
are asked to believe this working-class or lower
middle family in Nebraska simply accepts the
young woman who lived with their gay son for
19 years without marrying him. Not one snide
remark is ever passed; no hostility; no resentment
of her beautiful home or upper class parents
or easy life. They just welcome her to their
home, into their kitchen. It’s just never brought
up that they have no jealousy over the money she got from
the son. In my experience after someone dies
and the funeral is over, the knives come out—for everyone. I’ve rarely seen it otherwise; a
rare person doesn’t care about the money. These
people are just made ever so sweet: no religious
bigotry, no problems about sex.

The difference in Jhabvala is stunning. In her
powerful story about a widow who tries hard
to live an independent life—meaning liberty
for herself—in India—she shows how everyone
around this woman will not permit it. They
prey on her subtlety and then strongly—all the while not acknowledging this of course
and in the way people do. At the end of the
story the woman is so enmeshed that at
moments she understands why widows once
upon a time would submit to suttee or
beggary alone.

Patchett opens both books with central figures who
haven’t a care about money. This is Hollywood
film stuff.

The terrorists in Bel Canto are just the sweetest thugs,
misunderstood people. They are naive. Yes
they have violent impulses but who doesn’t? And
no spite nothing petty, no harassment—I’ve read
repeatedly (Michael Massing had a powerful essay
on this) on how hostages are typically threatened
carelessly to the point of trauma.

And yet I liked these books. I really got a kick
out of them. They cheered me up. Partly there
is a continual ironic acknowledgement in quiet
ways of despair and bleakness through the
story and imagery. That’s the steel cup they
come in or are framed by. There is much wit through
the visibilia about modern life. Mostly I’m charmed
by Patchett’s bright tone and perceptiveness
about nuances of tone between people—as long
as you are willing to credit the essential and
unreal unqualified unselfishness of spirit presented
as spontaneous (with bad impulses being the
momentary fleeting deviations) bathing her books.

And the kindness. What a rare trait in life

So I recommend Bel Canto and say _The Magician’s
Assistant_ probably will do little harm—as long as you
remember what narrow people really are like (read
Marcia Millman as antidote).

I’ve learnt on the Net that the romance I like is
often not the romance someone else will. That’s
why I ended my posting on WW on the question
of what is an enjoyable romancing to one person
and not to another. These things tell a lot about
the particular reader. I discovered on WW that
Dorothy Sayers if she ever was is no longer
enjoyable romancing to me. Values come into this

I do want to say though (to the world, to you,
my dear Nobody, to whoever reads this), that I can enjoy
very much books which are light. I think Patchett
could write a detective story I could enjoy. I can’t
see her writing gothics. Isn’t the world bursting
enough with misery? Better to go dancing while
you can.


Posted by: Ellen

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