Reviews – Bel Canto, How to be Both, Larry’s Party

The Reading Women Challenge encourages you to explore women’s writing, reading each previous winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Find out more here.

We’re at the end! Last month I reviewed books about family and this time I’ve rounded out the rest of the books I planned to read back in March (when the world was an almost different place…)

This month, the books I read are not really gathered by any theme. Unless ‘miscellanous’ counts? These are the books that defied categorisation – or were left over! However, I found I really enjoyed reading each book. A theme across each read seemed to be a tentative start followed by an intriguing middle and a gripping finish: the kind of book you get sucked into and finish before you realise.


Bel Canto – Ann Patchett (2002 winner)

Synopsis: Latin terrorists storm an international gathering hosted by an underprivileged country to promote foreign interest and trade, only to find that their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap opera on TV. Among the hostages are a world class opera singer and her biggest fan, a Japanese tycoon who has been persuaded to attend the party on the understanding that she will perform half a dozen arias after dinner.

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 336

This is, honestly, the strangest book. The setting for it is a little absurd – a hostage situation is created in an unnamed country in South America, where famous opera singer Roxanne Coss is performing at a Japanese businessman’s birthday party. What ensues is a back-and-forth pan of all of the people involved, on both sides, as they become accustomed to living closely together with each other, captors and captives alike. Although it’s tempting to say ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ and call it a day, the way Patchett writes is exquisitely human. She has a knack for rewording simple things to an extraordinary level: “There was such an incredible logic to kissing, such a metal to magnet pull.” In a story that is stuffed with so many narratives, it could be easy to get lost. The story is by its nature a long one. This is offset by attention to small details. For example, when everyone in the room tenses due to an unexpected knock it’s described “as one tenses when one does not wish to be disturbed at home.” The story is always returning to the intimacy a person holds with themselves and who they are.

There are a few characters who feature most strongly in this book. Of course Roxanne, the opera singer. She is the only female captive in the house, and everyone is in love with her. She is described repeatedly as someone to be in love with, with an otherworldly ability to sing and transport whoever listens. Another is Mr Hosokawa, the man whose birthday party it is. He is a fan of Roxanne Coss, having heard her perform many times, and it was her presence that caused him to attend the party in the first place. He arrives with Gen, his translator, and soon de facto translator for all the clashing nationalities in the room, unable to speak easily without him and his languages. There are more – lots more – but the narration returns particularly to these three. What I find captivating about this book is the way readers are given snapshots of almost everyone who is present, and yet it is still easy to follow storylines.

This is the type of book you have to take in slowly and sink into. The tragedy of the situation – or the horror of the situation – hangs over it all. There’s sort of a foreboding as you read, as people make small mistakes or things go wrong, even as they are not seeming so. But it’s still amusing somehow. I believe it’s described as ‘tragicomic’ by one narrator, which seems accurate. When it finally wraps up, it ends immediately. “It was an instant, and in that instant everything that had been known about the world was forgotten and relearned.”

How to be Both – Ali Smith (2015 winner)

Synopsis: How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn.

Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 384

Scratch that, this is the strangest book, a kind of choose-your-own-adventure way of telling two connected and yet disparate stories. You can choose which one you read first — the one about the painter in Renaissance Italy, or the schoolgirl in modern-day Cambridge. Would your experience of this story change depending on the order? I think so. I personally read the painter’s story first, because it came that way chronologically (and I’m lazy) and the depth it added to the second narrative really made it a pleasure. Having this first arc underneath the writing was like a secret knowledge only I knew, and because of this I could perceive everything better, more intimately.

The story of Francesco del Cossa, the painter, begins quite disjointed. It is off-putting at first, with a poem and than prose that jumps all over the place, before you realise we are in some form of purgatory, and recollections draw Francesco back into memories of life. Recalling George’s story, the second narrative, makes this part more understandable, however even then, Francesco’s life seems purposefully contrived, in the way history may always be a little wrong. It sticks again and again to the duality of the title. For example, Francesco is an identity the painter creates, first discovering the daughter of a brick maker would not be able to become a painter. And yet, Francesco is neither man nor woman — but both. Francesco’s state of life and death at the same time is reflected in George, whose recently passed mother remains both alive and dead. “Some time ago, George goes into her mother’s study… Her mother is not dead yet.” Smith often changes the view of her narrator, pulling back to an omniscient third-person to play with time, in a way that really allows us as readers to grasp the whole picture.

The second, George’s story is easy to become quickly captivated by in particular. It feels outsize to what it is, like a full length novel you read in a day or so. Much of it is to do with loss, and George attempting to deal with this. She becomes obsessed with the works of Francesco del Cossa as he becomes a sort of conduit that keeps her mother alive. Art, both its painting in Francesco’s story, and its study in George’s story, is an integral part of this book. What is art worth, for example? How much do painters deserve to be paid, and what if they are better than all the others around them? A quote I particularly enjoyed was: “George is fed up of art. She is tired of it always knowing best.” I have not seen such a succinct way that puts to words art’s inescapability, particularly because it is what we make of it and so, of course, doesn’t it always know better?

Larry’s Party – Carol Shields (1998 winner)

Synopsis: In the ordered riotousness of Hampton Court’s maze, Larry Weller discovers the passion of his life. Larry’s Party presents an ironic odyssey through the life of a modern man.

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 352

To be frank, I wasn’t expecting much from this book. It exemplifies the type of novel I wouldn’t have picked up were it not for this challenge, and the kind I’m so glad I have read. On the surface – and within, sometimes – it seems like an oridinary novel about an ordinary man, with nothing particuarly noticeable about it. But it’s that averageness that is exactly why this book is so fascinating. It takes about twenty years of Larry’s life and walks you through them — those intimate and confused twenties to the existential thirties to the settling forties. Perfectly everyday experiences are probed into and written about with the kind of prose that makes you rethink them anew. Supposedly, this is a book about the struggles of a middle-class white man of the baby boomer generation, examining his maleness in particular and what kind of life that gives him. It may be that, but it seems a limiting way to look at a story filled with such tender recreations of human life I often had to stop and reconsider the words written on the page.

I found I highlighted lots of parts of this book, for some reason or another. In the course of writing a novel not particularly following a plot, the author touched on everything. For example, this exchange: “Maybe I should take up sociology as a hobby,” Larry said. He meant it as a joke but Dr Edwards drew back startled.” It’s an exchange where a sociology professor is telling Larry, a florist, he could probably try floristry if he had the time, and then is shocked when Larry does the same, unintentionally making his own sociological critique. This is quite indicative of moments in this book. It broadcasts the disdain of working class professions in a few lines, and then never really delves into it. Larry, as he becomes more successful with his business, never seems to think on it too much, and so there is no need for it to be discussed. Throughout the novel, sociological ideas come and go, pertaining to work and class. Like: “In the end, anything’s better than working, even the working stiff’s daily grind.” However there is no outright focus on these topics. This works well for the book, and how it seems to be more a quick glance into Larry’s life than anything else.

A way I would describe this book is ‘rich.’ Despite it’s relatively short length, it nonetheless is able to dip into deeply existential thoughts often. It begins with Larry discovering his fascination for mazes at Hampton Court, and each point of his life is another turn of the maze, another desperate attempt to find the way — but out or to the maze’s centre? You never quite know.

So here we are, challenge complete! ヽ(o^▽^o)ノ

With this review, I’ve read over twenty-five winners (and shortlisters) of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a book award that celebrates ground-breaking writing by women. It has now run for twenty-five years! It was really insightful to see the span of fiction accumulated over that time, particularly in regards to older books I may not have otherwise picked up. I feel like I have truly read some of the best writing there is.

I’m planning to do a challenge round-up post in the next few days, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Have you read any of these books or authors? Do you plan to?

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