Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

>> Saturday, June 21, 2014

TITLE: Bel Canto
AUTHOR: Ann Patchett

PAGES: 318
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Unnamed South American country
TYPE: Fiction

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds, and people from different continents become compatriots. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion... and cannot be stopped.

A group of diplomats and high officials attending a sophisticated party in a South American country, are taken hostage by terrorists. As the hostage-takers negotiate with the authorities and the situation lengthens, the relationships between those stuck in the luxury compound develop way beyond what they expected when they decided to go to the party.

It's a setup that felt very familiar to me, as I remember the hostage crisis in the Japanese embassy in Peru so very clearly, even though it's been a while. The end of the siege happened not long after I'd started uni, and I remember all of us in my class skipping class to hang around in the canteen, waiting to see what had happened. With such clear memories, there wasn't much doubt in my mind about how the plot would develop, but that didn't matter. In fact, this was written not too long after that happened, so I'm assuming Patchett was expecting people would be aware of how things would turn out. I'm not going to go into detail here, as if you're hazier about the exact facts of the case, it would probably be an interesting experience to read it 'blind', but knowing doesn't spoil things in the least. The tension and suspense don't come from wondering what's going to happen, they come from the characters and their relationships.

I quickly came to care from these characters. There is much more to them than you might think at first, and Patchett kept surprising me. I'd think she was going somewhere expected with a character, and then she'd do something much more interesting and subtle. I think my favourites were Mr. Hosokawa, the powerful businessman whose birthday party it was, and the man for whom the famous soprano Roxane Coss was invited to perform, as well as Gen, the translator who helps those two (as well as several other characters) communicate. The latter actually does much more than facilitate communication, and I fell a little bit in love with him.

My only issue was with the character of Roxane. Having this woman who's the object of everyone's desire, no matter what culture they are from, is bad enough, but it was even more predictable than that. Of course, she has to be a blonde American. It didn't feel like Patchett was making a particular point about this, which would have been more interesting. It's unexamined, and it felt like something a bit too obvious, especially stuck as it was amongst exquisitely drawn characters.

Still, I found myself very moved by this book. It's a sad one, but the ending felt like exactly what it should be. This is one I would recommend.



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