General Impressions and Response to Kate

While reading Bel Canto, one of the first things I noticed was that the book is written using a third person omniscient narrator. This allows Patchett a great amount of freedom in her narration; she is not limited by a particular character’s perspective, and she can delve into people’s thoughts and minds. This stylistic choice seems important to me, because I believe that it facilitates the lyricism of the writing. This type of narrator allows Patchett a certain critical distance and the ability to step back from the action of the story and write things like “all of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all that they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear” (153). This observation is clearly from the author or narrator’s perspective; it makes a claim about the emotional states of both the hostages and the terrorists which would be impossible for any one character to know, and it is an improbably insightful and introspective thought for someone in the moment. This perspective is integral to the novel, because it further allows Patchett to delve into interpersonal relationships and to explore the intimate interactions between characters around which the story revolves.

Kate wrote her entry about understanding as a central theme in the novel, and I agree with her, but I think that equally important is the idea of communication. Certainly the two are intertwined, but I think that novel raises questions about the universality of human interaction: do people need language to understand one another, to communicate? Patchett’s English bent (as opposed to an anthropological approach) leads her to imply that there can be a universal standard for art or beauty and therefore a universal appreciation of it. While this is a lovely notion, it seems to me that the form of beauty (in the Platonic sense) has numerous manifestations that differ from the abstract ideal, and there is nothing to say that they are all appreciated unanimously or equally. Plato suggests that to recognize beauty in all of its forms brings one closer to comprehension of the ideal, but we know from experience that tastes differ. In other words, I don’t know how realistic it is to assert that terrorists and Japanese businessmen alike all harbor an instant appreciation for opera. However, Patchett’s larger themes about understanding, and a common humanity make for a satisfying if idealistic premise.

My name is Stephanie and  I’m a rising senior pursuing a B.A. in English Literature and a double minor in Gender Studies and Classics at Sweet Briar College. I am involved in the Honors Program and am currently researching and writing a senior honors thesis. This summer I am studying abroad at Oxford University and will be blogging from there!

2 Responses to “General Impressions and Response to Kate”

  1. katebeach says:

    Hi Stephanie. I think you present a compelling argument that it is perhaps difficult to imagine that all of the terrorists would be immediately taken with Coss’ opera. This book suspends reality a bit. I certainly picked up on an almost magical or ethereal element to the writing and atmosphere the book created. In a way, I sort of got lost in this novel in the same way I do if I encounter something I find to be truly beautiful- a song, a painting, even a scene from everyday life. Somehow, at least for me, when I enter those kinds of “worlds” it is easier to believe the impossible- that the singing is so incredible no one can keep him or herself from appreciating it or that a star opera singer could fall in love with a Japanese businessman. Patchett was able to get me there right from the start and keep me there till the end, with the exception of the epilogue, which I found a bit disappointing. In short, it didn’t bother me that there were elements of this book that didn’t necessarily line up with reality. I think that Patchett justified the decisions she made very well and within the world she created, I did believe it.

    Hope you are having a wonderful time at Oxford! Lucky you! What is the topic of your honors thesis? I did mine on travel writing . . . 🙂

  2. Carrie Brown says:


    Thank you for such a thoughtful and eloquent response. Anytime someone can introduce Plato into a discussion, my heart does a little dance! (You might be interested in Patchett’s memoir Truth & Beauty, by the way, which is the story of her friendship with the writer Lucy Grealey (Autobiography of a Face) and which tackles the idea of beauty quite directly….)


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