Beyond a Book Review: Bel Canto and Arcadia

I spent time this morning finishing one of the novels I’ve been working on for the past few weeks this summer. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do on a day off. One of my favorite memories from last summer is reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars over the course of the Fourth of July. I started reading just after a walk around Rice University’s outer loop and finished right before leaving for Hermann Park for picnic-ing and fireworks.

I realized I haven’t posted too much about what I’ve been reading this summer. What I love is reading fun, yet literary novels that I didn’t and won’t have time for during the school year. They are abundantly available in the public library, too.

I read Bel Canto around the Fourth of July 2013. I wouldn’t have even heard of this book, except a patron came in and couldn’t stop talking about it. On a whim, I decided to move it to the top of my reading list. I didn’t expect to like such a violent premise: a household of diplomats and guests held hostage by terrorists in an unidentified country in South America. I didn’t expect to understand all the references to opera, or much less, to appreciate them at all. I’ve only seen one opera live and one filmed opera; neither moved me in any lasting way. But Ann Patchett wrote this particular situation and wove in the details of opera to write about love in ways that I never imagined. She wrote of love between a man and a woman that didn’t have to be physical. Love that crossed boundaries of speech and different types of communication. A love for music that made a young boy excited enough not to kiss or hold the woman singing, but to open his mouth and echo with his own tenor version of the song. I don’t know if this will change the way I look at opera in the future. I hope it will change the way I look at people and the relationships they build with others and with their own hobbies and passions.

The next book also moved up the reading list in an unexpected way. I saw a patron turn in the brightly colored copy of Arcadia into the hold slat and it immediately reminded me of the maternal, optimist woman who wrote it, Lauren Groff. I had heard her read an excerpt of the novel in the fall when she came to Houston for the UH/Rice Cherry Reading Series. She had inspired me and most of my staff of R2: The Rice Review to continue following our passion for writing, no matter the cost or the doubts that the rest of the world pushed on us. It was the case of hearing the same words that I’d heard from so many other artists, but in a tone that said, “No, really. I am speaking to you because I care about you, not because we are both artists and I have the success you dream of finding when you are grown. I speak from love and hope, not carelessly throw-away wisdom.” I wished at the time to pick the brightly colored copy of Arcadia from the bookstore’s shelf and buy it then and there, but I knew I didn’t have time.

Cover of Arcadia by Lauren Groff


It lived up to my expectations. I felt the same sort of hope and awed appreciation of the written word and the world when I finished reading it this morning. It took me much longer to read the book because of its slow prose style. Each description of Bit’s world, whether it was the commune Arcadia of the first two sections or the bustle of New York City in the last two sections, took me forever to digest. I’ve never lived in that sort of environment and I didn’t live through the hippie era that encompassed most of Bit’s childhood, but I assume that reading Groff’s prose was a way of re-enacted that experience. I don’t want to describe the plot too much since the beauty of the work is not in the way it moved forward but in the way that every word, sentence, and theme begged me to stop. To see every single bit of what it was saying and showing. If you are looking for a bildungsroman that bleeds wisdom instead of morals or answers out of its main character, read this. If you are looking for the nostalgia of the past and the fear of the apocalyptic present to be acknowledged than dissipated into the now, read this.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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