Review: Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Summary: An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Roxane Coss is a world-renowned opera soprano from America who agrees to fly into a South American country to sing at the birthday of Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa, who has loved her voice from the moment he first heard it. He is joined by his ever-diligent translator Gen Watanabe and celebrated by an illustrious cast of dignitaries at the home of the country’s Vice-President. President Masuda is also expected to be present in this ill-disguised attempt to persuade Hosokawa to locate a factory in the country. But President Masuda, stays home at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera.

On that last minute petty decision turns the whole plot. What was meant to be a kidnapping of a president by a revolutionary militia becomes a protracted hostage siege. Joachim Messner, a Red Cross negotiator visiting the country steps in, with the help of Gen the translator. Ultimately 19 revolutionaries hold 39 men and one woman, Roxane Cass.

At first the threat of death hangs over the hostages, who saw the Vice President brutally pistol whipped and Roxane’s accompanist die in what they too late learned was a diabetic coma. As time drags on and only demands for food and necessities are met, the phenomenon know as the “Stockholm syndrome” develops as bonds form between hostages and captors, even various kinds of love between Roxane Coss and Hosokawa, between the efficient and retiring Gen, and the girl soldier Carmen, between boy soldier Ishmael and the Vice President, and Cesar, another boy, with a tremendous voice who Roxane dreams of turning into a great singer.

All of this is narrated by Patchett in her voice of measured wonder. She describes the unfolding of a world where captives and captors nearly and sometimes do forget the reality of a hostage siege which must end in surrender or bloodshed. It is a world that at least some do not want to end. Perhaps only the negotiator and Father Arguedas, the poor parish priest who volunteered to stay, knowing a priest would be needed, see clearly the alternatives.

Even here, she finds a way to end a book in a surprising implausibility that one didn’t see coming, and to this reader just didn’t seem quite right. It is true that she is not predictable, but the very best do unpredictable in a way that is satisfying, where one might say, “I didn’t see that coming, but it fits, it works.”

Of all of Patchett’s novels, I think this the best. The characters she draws, the measured progress of the plot, moving at the speed of developing relationships and situations, and the strange wonder of the world she creates all draw one in and forward.  I will likely read another Patchett book because of the quality of the writing and the stories she develops, and I’ll keep hoping for that fitting ending.


3 thoughts on “Review: Bel Canto

  1. HI Bob ~ It took two tries at the novel and a book club to allow me to get “in sync” with Patchett’s “Bel Canto.” I am grateful to the book club especially as they saw the humor in the novel – I had missed it completely! You are exactly right in calling Patchett’s voice one of “measured wonder.” Perfect.

    The book that I love by Patchett is her story about her troubled friendship with the late Lucy Grealy called “Truth and Beauty.

    Thanks for your insightful review!


    Liked by 1 person

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