Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 318 pages, 2001

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: It was popping up on people’s best-of lists.

Synopsis: A birthday party thrown in honour of Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, is raided by terrorists looking to find and overthrow a South American president. Upon discovering that the president stayed home to watch his favourite soap opera, the terrorists take all 200 party-goers hostage, including the famous opera singer Roxane Coss. The book deals with the unexpected relationship that ensue over the next four months between terrorists and hostages, with beautiful music acting as one of the few sources that overcome language barriers.

Why you should read this book: Patchett writes in a way that makes this unusual hostage situation seem entirely real. At the core of the book is Gen a translator who was working for Mr. Hosokawa when the terrorists arrived. Gen, speaking many different languages, is the glue that holds the group together through everything from blooming relationships to the terrorist negotiations. A thriller with delicate and intricate relationships.

The way that Patchett describes Roxane’s beautiful music is excellent enough that it may surprise you to find you have an urge to listen to opera as you read Bel Canto.

Why you should avoid this book: If you’ve never understood the ability of music to make people laugh, cry, and love, the significance of the character’s motivations may be lost on you.

The end of the book is rather unexpected and jars sharply against the rest of the book, but is nicely written overall.

Opening paragraph:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise. They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, ‘Brava! Brava!‘ and the Japanese turned away from them. Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Fabulous quotes:

They called through the names and told them to go to either the left or the right, and while they didn’t say which side was to be released, it was clear enough. One could almost tell from the cut of the tuxedo who would be staying. A great wall of darkness came from those who could now reasonably assume their fate and it pulled them away from the lucky hilarity of the others. On one side, men deemed less important were going back to their wives, would sleep in the familiar sheets of their own beds, would be greeted by children and dogs, the wet and reckless affection of their unconditional love. But thirty-nine men and one woman on the other side were just beginning to understand that they were digging in, that this was the house where they lived now, that they had been kidnapped.

‘Dear Gen,’ Messner said, clapping a hand down on his shoulder. ‘I’ve never seen you sitting alone. You must feel at times that everyone has something to say and no one knows how to say it.’

The priest knew he committed the sin of pride and still he was overjoyed at having been able to play a role in bringing in the music. He was still too dizzy from the sound of Roxane’s voice to express himself properly. He looked to see if the windows were open. He hoped that Manuel had been able to hear a line, a note, from where he stood on the sidewalk. What a blessing he had received in his captivity. The mysteries of Christ’s love had never been closer to him, not when he said the mass or received communion, not even on the day he took holy orders. He realized now he was only just beginning to see the full extent to which it was his destiny to follow, to walk blindly into fates he could never understand. In fate there was reward, in turning over one’s heart to God there was a magnificence that lay beyond description. At the moment one is sure that all is lost look at what is gained!

Also Recommended: Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards, Blindness by Jose Saramago.

Also by this author: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship; The Patron Saint of Liars; Taft; The Magician’s Assistant.

Author’s website:

Awards: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction: winner, 2002; Orange Prize for Fiction: winner, 2002; International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: Shortlist, 2003

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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