In 1992 I traveled to New Orleans to attend the Midsouth Booksellers' convention, courtesy of my bosses at the bookstore. There were two authors scheduled to appear there in whom I was particularly interested: Sharyn McCrumb, who had established herself as Southern Literary Mystery Queen with her Nora Bonesteel mysteries set in Appalachia, and first-time novelist Ann Patchett. I had read her debut novel, Patron Saint of Liars, and was bowled over by her talent.
I rushed out of a session about children's literature so I wouldn't miss meeting either of these women, but proximity led me to Ms. Patchett first. I happened to be the very first bookseller at the convention she'd met who'd read and loved her book, and I think she was as excited to talk with me as I was to talk with her.
Her subsequent novels bore out the promise of that first one. Whatever reservations the reader might bring her characters or stories is overcome by novel's end, because of the power she has to elicit that moment of recognition -- that we are all bound by our humanity, even when the binding might be thin as filament.
So you might well be asking yourself: Bel Canto came out in 2001, and it took you 14 years to get around to reading it? And the painfully short answer is yes.
I did try to read it in 2001. The advance copy had come to the store and I pounced on it. After work I headed out to pick up a child from school. He was at a rehearsal or practice or detention or something, so I knew I'd have some time in the parking lot to wait. I opened up Bel Canto and for reasons I now have a profound inability to recall, I just flat did not like it. When my son joined me I chucked the book in the floorboard. I didn't bring it in the house when I got home, and then, I don't know -- maybe it rained and a passenger plunked their wet feet on it, or somebody spilled something on it, but it was doomed.
National buzz--the buzz Patchett deserved beginning with that first novel--began to build, and soon Bel Canto had taken the book world by storm. My heart became hardened to it because I was a little ticked off that this woman for whom I'd been a passionate advocate for so many years was finally enjoying her success with a book I did not like. Bel Canto, for me, was like trying cold asparagus from a can one time and forever after refusing to try asparagus, no matter how it's prepared. Not. Going. To. Do. It.
A few weeks back I visited the library and was browsing the shelves, and horrors of horrors, ran across Bel Canto OUT OF PLACE on the shelf. Not just a little bit. A LOT. This, dear reader, I took as a sign. I checked it out. And this time I actually, you know, read it.
And I loved it, and I have no idea who that woman was who sat in that parking lot and went pffpth but she was wrong.
Whatever your reason has been for passing on this one, don't wait a minute longer. You'll lose no points for being tardy, I promise.
Note: Just so you know, I did read all the novels after this one the minute they came out, and was just as dotty for them as I'd hoped to be. In order of publication, her books are Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder. Read them all. Really. I mean it.