Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: A review

In an unnamed host country, somewhere in South America, a birthday party is taking place at the home of the vice-president. It is a party in honor of a wealthy and successful Japanese businessman, who the host country's government hopes will make a sizable investment in that country.

The Japanese businessman is an opera fan; one might even say an opera nut. In order to flatter and please him, the host country has brought in a world famous opera singer, Roxane Coss, to entertain at his party.

Many people from the diplomatic community are present at the party, but one guest is missing: the country's president. The president's great passion is not opera but soap opera. He is enthralled by a particular soap opera that is on television daily and then has a nighttime episode on Tuesday that provides a roundup of the whole week's story, and he stayed home on the night of the party to watch his beloved soap opera.

Nevertheless, the party proceeds successfully. Roxane Coss sings her arias to great acclaim, including one especially beloved by the honoree. As she finishes her last song, the lights go out in the house and a band of terrorists who have entered the house through the air conditioning ducts burst into the room and take all the partygoers hostage.

The terrorists' plan is already a failure, though, from the outset. Their plan had been to kidnap the president who they believed would be at the party. They would then force him to have certain people released from the country's notorious prisons. Without their intended hostage, they determine to hold the male guests and the famous soprano, while they release the rest of the women and children who were in the house.

A Red Cross representative comes to the house to try to negotiate a settlement, but neither the terrorists nor the government seem interested in any kind of good faith negotiation. Instead, the terrorists and their hostages settle into a kind of routine. As the weeks pass and the stalemate continues, they grow more familiar with each other, alliances and friendships form across lines, and, most unexpectedly, some fall in love.

The standoff continues for months and finally the Red Cross representative warns the "Generals" in charge of the terrorists that no progress is being made on the negotiations and that things will end badly for them. He urges them to surrender. Still they are unwilling to give up their demands or their hostages.

I found Ann Patchett's writing to be utterly compelling and beautiful. Like the soprano she writes about, she shows great range, filling her story with flashes of unexpected brutality and terror, followed by long stretches of incipient ennui as the hostages and their keepers settle into a boring daily routine, and finally bits of humor, as well as subtle insights into the nature of desire and longing and the growth of love.  

Moreover, the characters are superbly drawn. The premier cast includes Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese businessman, and the world-class soprano Roxane Coss, and Hosokawa's interpreter, the polyglot Gen (pronounce with a hard G) and a female terrorist aptly named Carmen. There are many languages represented by the guests and Gen is kept constantly busy interpreting and helping them communicate, but, in time, they learn to communicate almost without language, through the music, the games they play (chess and soccer), and French cuisine.

But, in addition to the four main characters, all the other terrorists and hostages are also beautifully described. They become real human beings for us and we long for them to be able to continue in the happy state which they achieve after a few weeks of their enforced intimacy. Throughout the book, however, we have a sense of dread that things will not end well for these people and, indeed, they do not. 

The only thing that I did not love about this book was the epilog. It was most unexpected and seemed a lamentably inappropriate conclusion for the story that had gone before. In spite of that ending, I still found the story amazing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. I'm glad you loved this book, Dorothy. I reviewed it a few years back. I liked it just fine but it didn't wow me. Here is a link to my review if you want to check it out:

    1. Thanks for the link. I'll definitely check it out. I think the book just hit me in the right place at the right time and I could easily forgive anything about it that I did not particularly like. Sometimes that happens with a book.

  2. I loved this book. It made me an Ann Patchett fan for life and is still my favorite one of all her novels, though there is not one I haven't liked. I read it some time ago and don't remember the epilogue at all. I will have to look that up!

    1. The epilog was just a bit jarring and unexpected and seemed out of character for Gen and Roxane.


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