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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 9, 2003

Author draws readers into world of hostages

 •  Previous story: Revolutionary 'Bel Canto' on everybody's top-10 list

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor


Heads up, book clubbers!

We've decided to pick up the pace to prod you into joining us to read the current selection. You've got until March 28 to read this one. We'll have a discussion in print, online and on the radio April 6. See below for information about how to participate.

Next week: We'll reveal the Hawai'i connection in Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto."

Ann Patchett could have told you at age 5 that she was going to be a writer, but it wasn't until she had quit her job as a teacher and was working as a waitress at a T.G.I. Friday's in her native Nashville that she began work on her first full-scale piece of fiction.

"At the end of my shift, I would roll silverware, which is a boring job, and it would be very late at night, and I would be trying to keep myself awake, and I would be making up this story," she said in a phone interview from Nashville. When a fellowship became available to allow her writing time, she thankfully quit her waitressing job and moved to Cape Cod to write "The Patron Saint of Liars," which brought her considerable critical notice.

Patchett's fourth novel, "Bel Canto" (Perennial/HarperCollins, $13.95) is the current Honolulu Advertiser Book Club selection and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

"Bel Canto" is about a group of hostages and terrorists, immured for several months in a South American mansion in which time more or less stands still.

Patchett said the book was born when she read about a real-life incident some years ago in which a group of terrorists took over the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru: "I really recognized it as one of my stories." She points out, however, that the book is predominantly fiction. "I (just) took the inspiration from the actual event."

A central character is an opera singer with a voice so beautiful that it draws everyone in the house together and a presence so compelling that even the terrorists acquiesce to her every desire. In researching this singer's world, Patchett became so passionate and knowledgeable an opera afficionado as to be able to write about it for the New York Times.

"Bel Canto" is a term so layered and complex that it seemed to characterize everything that Patchett was trying to do in the book. It means a period in operatic production, the work of three specific composers, a style of operatic singing and, literally translated, "beautiful singer" or "beautiful song." She used it as a name for the computer file which contained her first draft, and it stuck, though she was sure her publisher would find it too unlikely or obscure.

The book is both about a beautiful singer and — ironically — a beautiful time in the lives of the captives: "This is a roomful of Type A people who are absolutely forced to do nothing ... They just have to stand there and look around, and what they see, basically, is this enormous beauty that comes from the music. And then they see one another."

Ask Patchett, winner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award, what it is that keeps her writing and she'll first quip, "My mortgage," and then get serious.

"When people ask me that question, I always have this very sarcastic impulse, but I love what I do," she said. "I write because there's a story I want to read. ... even more than a story I want to tell. There's a book that I haven't read that I really want to read, and that's the book I'm writing."

The books Patchett wants to read, although they vary widely in setting and introduce strikingly different characters, have a common theme: "I always come back to construction of family or construction of society, people thrown together (who) have to make their way together, to work things out together ... But I think that's probably the theme of about 70 percent of Western literature so I don't feel too hemmed in by it, and I doubt I'll ever rise above it."

Her first and most recent books most blatantly pursue this world-within-a-world idea. "The Patron Saint of Liars" is about a home for unwed mothers in rural Kentucky, in which a group of women are stuck together, unable to go anywhere else, waiting for their babies to come, discussing their lives and pondering how they got there.

• • •

Book-club basics

Here's how to get involved in the Honolulu Advertiser Book Club:

Membership: There is no formal membership. Just read the book and participate in the virtual discussion by sending in your comments and questions.

Book club visits: Books editor Wanda Adams is seeking groups that are reading along with the book club, or who are willing to do so for a future selection so she can drop in on a discussion meeting. Call her at 525-8036.

Our book: "Bel Canto," by Ann Patchett; HarperCollins, paper, $13.95

Reading period: through March 28

Next "discussion": April 6

To participate in the discussion: Write Wanda Adams, Books Editor, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Fax: 525-8055. E-mail: bookclub@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Listen: To the "Sandwich Islands Literary Circle" at 9:30 tonight, KHPR 88.1 FM, KKUA 90.7 FM Maui, KANO 91.1 FM Hilo; or hear the program online, starting tomorrow at the Web site below.

To experience the book club online: Visit the.honoluluadvertiser.com/current/il/bookclub.