Orange Prize Challenge #5 and #6: ‘Bel Canto’ and ‘Property’

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It’s taken me some time to post an Orange Prize update since my last one about “The Idea of Perfection.” That’s because it took me about a week to get through the 1200 pages of George R.R. Martin‘s “A Dance With Dragons,” and another 4 or 5 days to read Ann Patchett‘s “Bel Canto.” Before I could even formulate my thoughts about that lyrical and haunting tome, I’d started and finished Valerie Martin’s “Property” within the day. Needless to say, I had positive reactions to both novels.

Starting with Patchett’s ‘Canto,’ I am now a huge fan of hers after reading this and her latest “State of Wonder.” She’s somehow able to create a fantastical situation that we could believe as being real. Is it probable that terrorists would take over this many hostages and let them live? Would these people actually fall in love in this situation? Who knows, but the reader believes it and never gets exasperated with Patchett’s magical storytelling.

Another great triumph of ‘Canto’ is that I loved every single character. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, because it’s really great going into it knowing only what happens in the first chapter — a group attending a party are taken over by terrorists thinking they’ve captured the president — but Patchett creates every single character, major or supporting with such care. Each one is also shrouded in mystery a little bit because it’s an ensemble piece; we want to know more about each one, but also don’t want the story to linger too long on any one person as everyone’s story is compelling.

I can definitely see why this novel won; it’s leaps and bounds ahead of most novels I’ve ever read: exquisitely original and tragically heartbreaking. I’d recommend this book to anyone really.

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If Ann Patchett’s ‘Canto’ is a work of art that transcends other works, and is most definitely a popular choice read by many women, Martin’s “Property” is much more difficult and complicated to parcel through. That’s the reason, however, that I enjoyed it even more than “Bel Canto.”

I’d never heard of this novel despite the fact that I’ve read quite a bit of Southern-based literature. First off, the pacing of the short novel is incredible. You pick it up and before you know it, you’ve read half the book. ‘Canto’ took me longer because it’s much more intricate and twisty with multiple perspectives, where “Property” sticks to Manon Gaudet in the first person, almost as if you’re reading her personal journal.

Manon is a Southern plantation wife in the early 1800s who despises her husband for his affairs with one of the house slaves. So often, we read period books in which the hero or heroine is far too enlightened for their time period. That’s because when we read a book about a negative time in our country’s history, we want to pat ourselves on the back for being modern and feeling just as these people do. We want there to be “evil” people — in this case, those who supported slavery — and “good” people (those who didn’t), when in fact, there were probably very few people actually like this. It’s documented Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to set slaves free until he had to, and most students learn that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t even actually do all that much. Our so-called heroes were much more gray than we want them to be (as people are).

It must be said that Manon is not a likeable character. She’s spoiled, vain, bossy, rude and mean to her slaves (especially the mother of her husband’s children). A great review I found on even likens her to Scarlett O’Hara; she, of course, doesn’t have the ruthlessness and ambition of Scarlett, but there are parallels to one of my all-time favorite heroines. Anyone who wants a neat, tied-up little package in which the author tells you what to think about women’s rights or slavery should not read this book. It’s a mind-boggler, but one that I believe should be required reading for women’s studies classes. It makes you think about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, as well as a black woman in a white man’s (and woman’s) world. What I’d give to have read a counterpart novel from the point of view of Sarah, the abused female house slave.

I’m excited to start Andrea Levy‘s “Small Island” soon as these last two have bolstered my belief that the Orange Prize found its groove early in the 2000s and has rewarded not only great books by female authors, but great books in general.

“Bel Canto:” – A

“Property” – A+


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