From the back of the book: 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.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ Review: I first read Bel Canto about five years ago, and have pressed it into many hands when friends and colleagues have said they’re looking for a “good book” to read. Until I re-read it for a book group recently, I’d have been unable to say exactly why it is my favorite of Patchett’s works (I have read two other of her novels, The Magician’s Assistant and Run). It was as satisfying on this second read, and I suspect it will continue to be so, as many times as I pick it up.
Patchett sets the scene in a vice presidential mansion of an unknown South American country; even in the characters’ memories we rarely venture outside this house. This has the effect of a surreal timelessness for both the reader and the characters in Bel Canto. The initial hours of the crisis become the first few days, then time lapses and we have no idea how much time has passed until a thought or spoken word gives an indication. Mr. Hosokawa is aware of this as he communicates with Ms. Coss a few days into the ordeal:
He spoke to her with great honesty, the kind two people use after a lifetime of knowing one another. But what was a lifetime? This afternoon? This evening? The kidnappers had reset the clocks [metaphorically] and no one knew a thing about time anymore.
Patchett uses the garua, the seasonal fog of the region, to further the metaphor of timelessness:
When one looked out the window now it was impossible to see as far as the wall which cuts off the garden from the street. It was difficult to make out the shapes of the trees, to tell a tree from a shrub. It made the daylight seem like dusk in much the same way the floodlights that had been set up on the other side of the wall almost made night into day, the kind of false, electric day of an evening baseball game. In short, when one looked out the window during the garua all one really saw was the garua itself, not day or night or seasons or place. The day no longer progressed in its normal, linear fashion but instead every hour circled back to its beginning, every moment was lived over and over again. Time, in the manner in which they had all understood it, was over.
There is little “action” after the initial hostage-taking; rather, a beautiful character study unfolds over the course of the novel. Lines between hostage and terrorist blur as the tensions of the relationships mellow; lines between “public” self and “private” self become more defined as each person, captive and captor alike, reach into themselves to find a piece of their personality which has lain latent until the pressures of the outside world are shielded by the high walls of the executive mansion. Behind these high wall those traits are allowed to thrive – whether they be piano playing, gardening or great romantic love for a spouse on the other side of those walls.
Perhaps the most interesting character is that of Gen, a translator who works for Mr. Hosokawa, the guest of honor at this birthday celebration. Gen speaks a dozen languages and has been brought to the party solely as an employee, not because he has a love of opera or an interest in celebrating his employer’s birthday. He is a non-entity at the beginning, invisible except for his quick mind and tongue that allows conversations and negotiating among the half dozen or so languages spoken in the house. He is so adept at blending into the background that when the terrorists draw up initial lists of which hostages to release and which to retain, Gen’s name appears on neither list; he adds his name to the retention list, out of a sense of obligation to Mr. Hosokawa and the realization that the group cannot communicate without him.
Patchett gives us a novel which explores the human condition in a vacuum. With Roxane Coss’ music being the only common language, the hostages and terrorists alike stretch their perceived limits, and we readers join the hostages in a sort of “Stockholm syndrome.” This is a highly recommended hard-to-put-down novel.
Ann Patchett has written five novels; aside from the three mentioned above, they include Taft and The Patron Saint of Liars. Her body of work also includes a memoir, Truth and Beauty, and several shorter pieces which have appeared in magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic. Bel Canto is winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. More information about the author and her books, including Reading Group Guides for her five novels, can be found at her website. The cover photo on the right is of the latest paperback release from Harper Perennial Modern Classics (ISBN-13: 978-0061565311); you can pick it up at a bookstore near you.
I’ll link to my review of Run when I post it. Frankly, I’ve struggled with my review of Run because I (perhaps unfairly) compare it to the high benchmark of Bel Canto. I’m interested in your thoughts if you’ve read Bel Canto in addition to any other of Ann Patchett’s novels. Have you had this dilemma with another author who set the bar so high with your initial reading of their work?