Bel Canto: Clarity, Despite the Fog

There’s so much to unpack in this story: a sense of irony, rich juxtapositions of characters and images, and a mastery of metaphor. And it’s the latter that has me most intrigued.

More specifically, the garua, the misty, grey fog that hangs about the mansion, ties to so many elements of the story. It firmly plants the characters in limbo and underscores the uncertainty of their situation. They’re suspended in a self-contained world, unable to see much beyond the walls that hold them. Also, their captors reveal that they too embody the fog of the landscape. With the unexpected absence of the president at the event honoring Mr. Hosokawa, they are unable to articulate a clear path forward, and leave themselves and their “guests” in a holding pattern.

The garua, as it hangs about them, also mirrors the broader sense of confusion and blurring of boundaries the characters experience as the story unfolds. Strict class lines break down; traditional roles are turned upside down; formalities give way to authenticity and pragmatism; and a strangely balanced sense of routine emerges as the characters grow accustomed to their situation.

Beyond the story itself, we’ve all no doubt experienced misty, foggy days (or even weeks, for those of us who grew up on the coast!), and the profound sense of isolation, timelessness, and reflection that can accompany them. Fog makes you focus more intently on what surrounds you, that is, the features that are actually discernable. Colors, textures, and sounds within your reach become more acute against a formless, neutral backdrop.

This seems to be occurring in Bel Canto as the story proceeds. The characters are seeing each other more accurately. They are unraveling the complexities of one another’s stories and personalities – and their personal gifts – and finding what they need in one another to achieve a surprising sense of equilibrium in what the reader would expect to be chaos.

Hello, everyone. My name is Lea Harvey, SBC Class of 1990. I was an Art History major, with a certificate in Arts Management. I’ve spent most of the last 20 years in the nonprofit sector, focusing on communications, marketing, fundraising, and management. Although I love the arts, my passion for the outdoors has led me to work primarily at  environmental organizations. I spent 8 years at World Wildlife Fund, and am now the VP for Development at Resources for the Future, an environmental policy research organization based in Washington, DC ( I’m a native of the Lowcountry of South Carolina, but my partner (Kiki), our hounds (Sophie and Frankie), and I now call Falls Church, VA home.

3 Responses to “Bel Canto: Clarity, Despite the Fog”

  1. kaethe says:

    Yesterday’s Washington Post Arts section includes an article about Ann Patchett and her aversion to using cell phones in her novels. ( Given the number of articles I’ve seen recently regarding the detrimental effect of electronic communications on human relationships (i.e., getting to know one another), it seems to me that Patchett is attacking the problem of presenting her cast of characters to each other in two ways: fog to enhance their closeness and no cell phones to interfere with those budding relationships.

  2. robertson says:

    I’m behind in my comments, but let me reach back to my first thoughts, before I work my way to the novel’s conclusion. There’s my initial subjective reaction–that I read the first 90 pages in a rush and only stopped because I was skipping words. I am very interested in this book because it’s not like many of the books I read: not solidly located in specified place and time, even though it’s clear that somewhere back in time, Peru and Fujimori and the Shining Path were originals from which Patchett created her landscape. As Kate has already indicated, the point is to create this oddly privileged space cut off from the outside world and its contingencies, where characters can explore and develop in ways impossible on the outside.

    What was also gripping about that first section was the sheer narrative drive that pulled me along, making me pay little attention to what might otherwise have been my objections, for instance, to Gen, the impossibly accomplished translator and the French ambassador newly in love with his wife. What I absolutely loved was that finely imagined section where all of the hostages are lying on the floor, perceiving the muffled sounds of traffic, of–I think–the police outside. I got down on the floor of my bedroom to see what I could perceive from the story below. It’s been a while since a book has made me do anything like that.

    • Carrie Brown says:

      I am somehow profoundly moved at the thought of Marcia lying on the floor of her bedroom by way of experiment. Novels make people do the strangest things! Now I want to know exactly what other things “like that” you have been prompted to undertake. This could be dangerous behavior and end badly: think of whale hunting, bull fighting, even going to the lighthouse….

      I’m so glad everyone is enjoying the novel. Me, too. All over again.

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