Two bonneted young ladies, bathed in dappled light, sit in a skiff on a shimmering river.
I'm thinking of the French artist, Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). "Whipped cream and other delights," is a phrase my art history teacher at USC used to describe Renoir's romantic sensibility. Who came along to shatter sentimental realism? Pablo Picasso, among other artists.
So, in a few words, this is my claim: Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is Renoir & Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer is Picasso. One word used to describe Didion's prose is "Atomization," a shattering and unmooring. (Cubism, anyone?) The illusory center does not hold, things fall apart, disquietude and dissonance magnify.
Didion did this with her pen, Picasso with his brush.
The narrator Grace Stasser-Mendana in Didion's 1977 short novel, A Book of Common Prayer, has this to say about the main character, Charlotte Douglas. "I think I have never known anyone who led quite so unexamined a life." Charlotte, without a backward glance or inward one, is the mother of a Patty Hearst character named Marin. As you might suspect, mother and daughter hail from San Francisco. The fair-haired Marin is a college student turned urban guerilla, the member of a terrorist cell that hijacks an airliner. The FBI is after Marin, and so is Charlotte. The search for her daughter is how Didion's main character ends up in Boca Grande, a Central American country owned by a deeply corrupt family. (Having lived in Venezuela, Colombia & Peru, I could believe in Boca Grande as more than fictional, which is not true for Patchett's unnamed country in South America. Ironically, I was living in Lima, Peru, when I first read Bel Canto.)
I return to Picasso and a quote attributed to him. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand."
From the 1960s until her recent death, Joan Didion revealed life as her acute eye perceived it. No sugared gaze from Joan meant no glazed prose for the reader. In contrast I turn to Bel Canto. By Ann Patchett's own admission in an interview, she cannot conceive of evil. As I "key" these words, I stare at a full-page back cover from Harper's Magazine, October 2019. In large red letters at the top: "Expect miracles when you read Ann Patchett's fiction." Yes, and it would require a miracle for me to believe the real terrorists (MRTA), who in real life took over the Japanese's ambassador's residence in Lima on December 17th in 1996… were basically a kindly bunch with three savants among them. A trio of these terrorists only needed confinement with a famous opera star for three-fold genius to emerge: one as a singer, another as a chess player, the other with languages. I think to make a fantasy, as Patchett has, of an actual brutal reality, means there exists " a startling vacuum in the writer's store of knowledge." This is a phrase borrowed from Didion about persons, to include writers, who insist the world is peopled with others exactly like themselves.
Next week: The letter I sent on January 10, 2022, to Parnassus Books in Nashville, a bookstore Patchett purchased with money earned from the wildly successful, award-winning Bel Canto.