Thursday, July 10, 2008

i wish dick cheney would take up housekeeping

I’m in the middle of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. It’s about a party of diplomats, businessmen and one opera singer who are taken hostage by a grassroots terrorist organization in an unnamed South American country. The terrorists quickly set most of the women and servants free to prove that they are reasonable people, so the “important” men are left to fend for themselves and fend off boredom as their days inside the vice president’s overthrown house mount.

I’m sure that many people had many wonderful things to say about this book when it came out in 2001 (it’s beautifully written, it’s funny and sad and humanizing, etc.), but what I love the most about is how the men in the story come to appreciate and practice qualities that are traditionally deemed feminine and hence lesser:

  • Communication: A Japanese businessman’s trusty translator—who speaks dozens of languages—quickly becomes the most sought-after person at this international involuntary conference.
  • Cooking: A French ambassador gets to demonstrate his flair in the kitchen, even if the terrorists won’t let him use knives.
  • Cleaning: The vice president—who always felt useless in his second-banana role—discovers a new sense of purpose in polishing the windows, picking up trash and scouring the carpets.
  • Art: Although some of the kidnapped crew already had a passion for music, most considered it a hobby to be indulged in only after their long workdays were through. Here they quickly realize that the daily rituals of the opera singer and her makeshift accompanist (previously one of the hobbyists) can literally save their lives. Art might be escapism, but this is escapism at its most transcendent.

So a book that at first appeared to be about world politics (manly!) has turned into a domestic novel (girly!)—and, what do you know, it reveals itself to be even more brilliant in the process.

8 comments:

Peter Varvel said...

Sounds good! It reminds me of what we learned in school about the all-male communities of the California gold rush and how men had to take on "non-traditional gender roles" in housework, cooking, laundry, sewing, gardening, etc.
I'm really bad: I don't do any 'manly' yardwork or auto care, and I barely cook or clean house.
I am meticulous about the care and feeding of our dogs and kitty, though.

Sizzle said...

Why oh why have I never finished reading that book!?

Cheryl said...

PV: And of course the men turned their gold rush women's work into empires (sewing = Levi Strauss). We girls could learn a thing or two. Not that I sew.

S: Thanks for stopping by! I haven't finished the book yet either, so I can hardly judge. It's the kind of book you can pick up and enjoy a few pages of without needing to follow the whole plot.

Veronica said...

BOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUBBOOKCLUB...

Cheryl said...

I know, I miss the book club! But I think we may have passed the point of no return. I blame Jonathan Safran Foer.

Veronica said...

NO! can't we do this book for the next book club?! please?! seriously! i'll host it! i swear!

Cheryl said...

If anyone can revive it, you can, my dear. I pass the book club tiara to you (well, I think it was AK's to pass, but whatever). Go get your Evite on!

Veronica said...

i'll call ak. thank you for the tiara. i've always wanted one.