Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Monday, November 28, 2011

Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Literary fiction, contemporary fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2002
Source: Borrowed from my sister-in-law
Read for: Back to the Classics Challenge (21st century "classic")

One evening in an unknown South American country, a group of influential and wealthy are gathered at a birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, an opera enthusiast. In order to lure the influential Japanese businessman to the country (in the hopes that he will build a factory there), the renowned soprano Roxane Coss has been paid to perform. However, the idyllic evening takes a dark turn when the house is ambushed by terrorists hoping to capture the president of the country. When the president proves to be absent, the entire party is taken as hostages. As the days pass, the lines blur and the people in the house begin a new life shaped and directed by the music of Roxane Coss present in the house.

Before I say anything else about this book, I have to draw attention to the beautiful writing. Nothing draws me in like elegant language, and Patchett had me from page one. She is capable of delineating emotions and relationships that rang with sharp clarity to my own experience. Her sentences were either soothing and flowing or sharp and powerful. I will definitely be reading more of her work from the loveliness of the writing alone.

The story itself started out uncertainly for me. I'm not that interested in opera or political intrigue and I was beginning to have my doubts as the first few pages unfolded. However, as the days trapped in the house lengthened for the hostages and I became better acquainted with the hostages and the terrorists, I fell in love with each of their characters and became invested in their stories. Despite the seemingly thrilling (in a frightening way, obviously, not an exciting one) idea of being kidnapped and held hostage, in general the characters' days drag on in a quiet house with few events. However, we are given glimpses into their lives and they transform as their limits are tested. A quiet Japanese man is revealed to be a stunning pianist. A boorish, loud Russian man is shown to have the soul of an artist. A coarse, angry, teenage terrorist is discovered to have the voice of an angel. And a few unlikely characters have the opportunity to discover love. As everything unfolded, I was desperate to know what happened next. I understood with the characters that the uneasy truce the hostages and the terrorists had reached, their seemingly impossible co-existance and unlikely friendships that had to be carefully maintained so their way of life was not upset. Despite the slow beginning, by the ending I was completely invested, completely in love with the characters.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the opera. As I said before, I'm not a huge opera fan. I've been to one opera (The Marriage of Figaro), and while it was fun, I didn't know enough about it to form much of an opinion. The farthest I've ever really gone is "operettas," musicals like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables that are pretty much completely music with no speaking but more like musical theater than an opera. However, music has always been a pretty integral part of my life, although it has tapered off in the last few years. In high school I was very involved in choir, solo voice competitions, and piano competitions, and I spent easily at least three hours a day practicing. When I decided not to study music in college, I spent less and less time with music. Although it is still something I love and something very important to me, it often falls away. However, with this book I was craving music. I found myself going to my piano or guitar and playing for hours. While this book has inspired me to look into a few operas, I am mostly grateful for the way it reminded me of the importance of music in my life. I think in a world so full of sound and information at my fingertips, it is easy to think I have everything I need. For the hostages, their world was slowed down. They lived for music and art -- it was the ray of light that illumined their bleak existence. Music, and the relationships they formed with each other. I think it is a good lesson for those of us who are perhaps held "hostage" by our schedules that are packed with insignificant busy-work.

Despite a slow beginning, I fell in love with the characters and the story. Ann Patchett's writing was strong straight through and has definitely inspired me to read more of her work. Bel Canto is a lovely novel that won't disappoint someone looking for a thought-provoking read with lyrical writing.

4.25 stars

Warnings: A few swears, innuendo, off-the-page sensuality


  1. Oh, yes, I agree. I think Patchett writes beautifully, and though I've not read Bel Canto since it was published (lord, almost 10 years ago now!), it remains in my mind one of the finest books Ive read in a long, long time.

  2. I've had this book on my shelf for ages, so I'm really glad you liked this! Hopefully I'll get to it next year, it sounds really good! :-)

  3. I liked this one but the ending irritated me it felt forced and convenient. Ah well. It made for a great book club discussion.

  4. The beginning was slow to me, too, but I agree with you, the language is beautiful and later in the book I connected with the characters. Great review!

  5. I haven't been able able to get past that slow beginning. And I've tried twice!

  6. @As the Crowe Flies -- Glad to hear you loved it too! I can't wait to read more of Patchett's books. I have Truth and Beauty on the TBR for early next year!

    @Sarah - It is BEAUTIFUL, hope you like it!

    @Jenny - Yeah, the ending was a little too neat. It made me kind of sad, I think it was supposed to be happy but I didn't believe in it.

    @Pepca - Once I connected to the characters I absolutely loved them! Glad you do too.

    @softdrink -- Oh man, it might not be for you but after the first fifty pages or so it gets much better, if that is any incentive. :)

  7. This really sounds like a wonderful book. I have heard a lot of really wonderful things about Patchett's work. I think that it is time I start reading! And I love the musical aspect of this book. I can't say I know a ton about opera, but I love music and the power it can have over people. I will definitely be reading this book in the near future.

    -Jennifer @

  8. @Jennifer -- It is fantastic! I definitely recommend it. And the music was great. I haven't delved into opera yet but I have a little list that I am interested in looking into from this book.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...