I don’t think I’m capable of putting into coherent English how pleased I was when my book club chose Ann Patchett‘s Bel Canto as our latest read. See, the novel has without a doubt been one of my favorites for years; in fact, I reread it every twelve months or so. No lie. Also, everyone I’ve ever suggested the book to has loved it — honestly. Here’s the story:
Bel Canto is set in an unspecified South American country, where an elaborate party is taking place at the vice president’s mansion. Government officials and entrepreneurs are present to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, as well as watch the performance of a celebrated opera singer. The intimate concert is interrupted by a terrorist group, who then takes the entire house — servants, guests and opera singer — captive. Eventually, some of the hostages are released, leaving only a handful to be guarded by the terrorists.
What unfolds in Patchett’s three hundred pages is wholly unpredictable, indescribably lovely and utterly devastating; the plot was inspired by a similar event which took place in Peru during the mid-nineties, though Patchett spins what could have been a perfectly good fact-based thriller into something leagues more heartbreaking, emboldened and new. Even now, years after I first cracked its spine, Bel Canto still gracefully slides past my grumpy, gloomy demeanor, and gently leads me through its pages. It also led to some fantastic conversation in New Hampshire, where we had carpooled in order to visit the Currier Museum of Art and a very special property that is part of the collection. The book we had read previous to Bel Canto was Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, the fictionalized account of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Martha Borthwick Cheney; it seemed only fitting to travel to the only Wright home located in New England that is open to the general public.
The Currier’s Wright is called the Isadore J. and Lucille Zimmerman House, after the husband and wife who commissioned the architect to design them not only a home to fit their lifestyle, but also interiors, landscaping and a mailbox that also suited their needs. In a sense, our docents informed us, the Zimmermans were Wright’s ideal clients, deferring to him in all matters related to their home. Because of this relationship with these clients, Wright’s radical and nontraditional vision was truly able to flourish — it thrives even today, almost sixty years after the project was completed.
Even if you’re not like me and neither design nor architecture interests you, I’m certain that the Zimmerman house would mesmerize you conclusively. Let’s not even talk about the clever, well-thought-out details like the wall of windows that fully capture Lucille Zimmerman’s beloved garden from each and every room or the in-floor heating that runs beneath the length of the home. I’ll skip all that specifically to discuss this: the Zimmermans were the only people to ever live in this home. They bequeathed the structure to the Currier, the board of which left the house exactly as Isadore and Lucille did. Those are Lucille’s dresses hanging in the bedroom closet, Isadore’s books on the shelves, their collection of pottery catching your eye. The slim kitchen (scanned from a postcard I purchased in the gift store; interior photography is not permitted) is stocked with their pots and pans, their coffee tins, their dishtowels. It is also the Zimmermans’ ashes interred together in a corner of the yard underneath a memorial plaque, overlooking the home they loved. How much more fascinating does it get than that?
Note: Visitors may tour the Zimmerman House by reservation only. The Currier offers several different tours throughout the year. Click on the photo of the house for a four-picture slideshow of the exterior.
Currier Museum of Art
150 Ash Street
Manchester, New Hampshire 03104