Since deciding to initiate my own book club, I've detected a small shift in my focus when reading fiction. Instead of focusing as much on the prose itself, while reading the last several novels, my attention has turned more to ideas I believe the author is trying to explore. Ann Patchett's 2001 novel "Bel Canto" is illustrative of my recent reading shift.
"Bel Canto" is easily summarized. An international group of notable guests at a lavish birthday party in an unnamed South American country are being entertained by the world's most beloved opera soprano. The guests are taken hostage by a group of terrorists who plan to exchange the life of the country's President for their demands. The President is not at the party. A stalemate ensues.
I was engaged - if not riveted - from the start. The prose was strong - if not luminous - from the opening sentence. More significantly, the quality of the prose never diminished - this is a talented author. So, turning the well written and reasonably compelling pages, I found myself digging deeper and feeling gratified each time I did so. About 2/3 in, Patchett uses a story told by a minor character to reveal one of her ideas - how appreciation for art enlarges life. But here's where authorial talent trumps even an important idea like that. The story is being told by a Russian to a Japanese translator so that he can, in turn, translate that Russian into English. Each time the translator struggles, Patchett is exploring a richer idea. The difficulty each of us have putting our appreciation for art into words.
Both of Patchett's ideas are central to my own life experience. And that's not all she has on her mind in "Bel Canto". If you've read or get around to reading this novel, please tell me what you uncover.