Book reviews

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


Just like Ann Patchett’s kidnapped characters in Bel Canto, I never wanted to leave the beautiful world I found myself in. I wish this book had gone on and on and on…

Bel Canto is set in the home of the Vice President in an unnamed, poor Latin American country. The story starts with the Vice President hosting a dinner party for a Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, to entice him to build a factory in their country. The guests include a who’s who of business people and their wives, along with Mr Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer, American Roxanne Coss, who is engaged to sing after dinner.

Just as Roxanne finished performing the lights went out and when they came on again, the guests realised that a band of kidnappers had snuck in and taken them hostage. The intended target was the country’s President, but unbeknownst to the kidnappers the President ditched the party at the last minute to stay home to watch his favourite soap opera.

The rest of the story takes place over the next four months. Some of the guests and staff were freed, but the most important guests remained as hostages in the Vice President’s living room. Mr Hosokawa, his translator, Roxanne, a priest, the Vice President and a bunch of Russian businessmen make up the main characters amongst the hostages, while the kidnappers include three self-appointed Generals and a motley group of teenagers; both boys and girls with guns.

Because of the many language barriers amongst the parties, Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, becomes the most important person in the room. Gen translates the negotiations between the kidnappers and a Red Cross negotiator, for different groups of guests and between the hostages and the kidnappers. He translates for Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne as their friendship begins and develops during their imprisonment, and he translates a delightful declaration of love from one of the Russian businessmen to Roxanne. After the declaration, Roxanne comments to Gen that “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.”

Every day Roxanne sings while a Japanese businessman accompanies her on the piano. Mr Hosokawa and a General play chess. Gen teaches one of the kidnappers to read. The Vice President discovers the joys of cleaning house. Various parties fall in love. Businessmen learn how to relax. Kidnappers and hostages become friends. As time passes, most of the kidnappers and the hostages realise they do not want their life in the Vice President’s house to end.

I am not a fan of opera but I enjoyed the way that singing and music brought these characters together, although I suspect that in real life some of the guests would have their fingers stuck in their ears for a bit of peace and quiet, rather than everyone falling under the spell of the music. I almost brought myself to listen to some of the pieces sung in this book, but I couldn’t quite manage it… I would quite like opera if nobody sung.

I loved Bel Canto. Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer whose skill and craftsmanship show in every word of this story. I didn’t like the ending of the book, but although I have been thinking and thinking of how else it could have ended, I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

I’m a newcomer to Ann Patchett’s writing, having only recently read her collection of essays and memoirs in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, but am looking forward to making my way through her works.




Comments on: "Bel Canto by Ann Patchett" (6)

  1. Great review….I have not read any of Ann Patchett’s work but will try to get this book sometime

  2. Bel Canto was a good book to start with by this author. In the memoir I read recently, Ann Patchett said she didn’t like and wasn’t familiar with opera before she started writing the book, but her research gave her a passion for it. If you like opera you will probably get even more from this story than I did.

  3. I haven’t read this but did read one of her later books, State of Wonder. It didn’t have quite the same effect as this one had on you, but I admired her writing (it was the story I was less enthusiaistic about) and have been meaning to read another of her books ever since. One day I shall read this – glad you enjoyed it so much, and I totally agree about opera!

  4. I am not a fan of opera. Your review motivated me to read the book 🙂

  5. I like Ann Patchett’s writing a lot and can see that a lot of care goes into the words she chooses, and the sentence structure etc. In hindsight, the plot of Bel Canto was improbable (eg everyone loving opera) but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

  6. Let me know how you like it!

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