One of the great pleasures of vacation is getting to do some serious reading.
I often develop a weird, irrational aversion to books that are very popular. I understand that it doesn’t make sense that I think I’m LESS likely to like a book that millions of people like, but somehow that sometimes happens.
So it was with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I’d set my mind against it — for no good reason.
It turns out that the novel is all about the nature of happiness. I don’t want to give the plot away — it involves a very unlikely set of circumstances.
I think that if I weren’t thinking about happiness all the time, I might have been bothered by the “unrealistic” nature of the events. But because I was reading it, instead, as an exploration for the circumstances necessary for happiness, I appreciated its careful working through of many aspects of happiness.
The role of families, of expectations, of the weight of the future, of mortality, of the consolations of art, of the importance of material comforts, of education, of communication…all this and much more. This description might make it sound tiresome and pedantic, but it’s not, at all.
In particular, I was interested to see the weight given to the “atmosphere of growth,” which was the aspect that eluded me for the longest time when I was devising my First Splendid Truth (to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth). Many characters find a way to develop an atmosphere of growth in highly restricted circumstances, and that’s how they find consolation and happiness — and form bonds with other people.
So I thought I was just doing some holiday reading, but in fact, it was a good happiness-project meditation as well as a good novel.