Winnowing a year’s worth of memorable reads to a list of our top 100 picks has always felt--to our pack of rabid Amazonian booklovers--agonizing at times, but we now have new appreciation for the luxury of having slots enough for (almost all of) our true favorites. Compiling a short list of 10 books representing the best of the past decade was a much more unforgiving exercise, and I suspect some tears were shed (if only silently, in the shower) over the sidelining of the wondrous Oscar Wao.
The only personal pick I truly miss having on our decade list is Ann Patchett’s Pen/Faulkner Award-winning Bel Canto, which will surely be among the very first books I revisit someday (in that mythical time when I have time to reread). Other books may have had more objective literary merit (whatever that means), but for me, a tiny handful were as memorable.
Set in an unidentified South American country, Bel Canto takes place almost entirely within the walls of a palatial home, where a crowd of diplomats enjoying a famous opera singer's performance at a birthday party become the hostages of young insurgents--and remain their prisoners for weeks that stretch into months.
The story draws much of its dramatic tension from its moments of violence (and the knowledge that this situation cannot end well for captors and captives, all of whom we come to know and care for), but Patchett's characters transform most profoundly when hit by the power of love. They fall under the thrall of the soprano's extraordinary voice, of music itself, of a language they have just begun to understand, of the garden that surrounds the house with increasingly untamed exuberance. Some find themselves utterly transformed by their longing for each other, and they dwell in a sort of blissful paradox, imprisoned, yet unmoored from the structure of their outside lives, so that their mutual captivity becomes a new kind of freedom.
Bel Canto feels subtly, deeply romantic from its opening scene, which I share with you in the hope that you won't let another decade go by without willingly making yourself its hostage (if only for a few hours). --Mari
They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise.
They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, "Brava! Brava!" and the Japanese turned away from them.
Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound? --Ann Patchett