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Fiction, Reflection

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel canto (Bel-Canto) (Italian, “beautiful singing“), along with a number of similar constructions (“bellezze del canto”/”bell’arte del canto”), is an Italian opera term

“How much does a house know?”

In the vice president’s mansion in an unnamed South American country (not very hard to find out which Latin American country once had a Japanese president), a lavish party is taking place to celebrate the birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa. An American opera singer, Roxane Coss is entertaining the guests, dignitaries and high-ranking officials from around the world, when suddenly the room is plunged into darkness. Terrorists invade the mansion, crawling out from an air-cond vents and set in motion a series of events that irrevocably alters the life of every person involved.

For Mr. Hosokawa, in whose honor the party is thrown, the time in captivity is rife with paradox. He never had any intention of doing business with the host country and so feels guilty for having accepted the invitation under false pretenses — solely to meet Roxane Coss. His feelings of guilt however give way to an undeniable happiness as Roxanne reciprocate her love. He is held against his will, and yet under no other circumstances would he have become acquainted with the renowned opera singer who has long captivated him.

The only woman not released by the terrorists, Roxane Coss is the central figure in the story. As much as Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s translator and a gifted linguist, makes it possible to overcome the language barriers, it is Roxane’s exquisite voice that bridges the chasm between the hostages and the terrorists. Every person in the house, regardless of their knowledge and understanding of opera, recognises the sheer splendor of Roxane’s singing and understands that they, in the midst of this terrifying situation, are witness to an awe-inspiring talent. Her singing and the practice routine she devises allow her to maintain a hold on her previous life — and, by extension, her fellow hostages are able to do so as well.

I must say only the most incorrigible dreamer will get sucked into such a dramatised event development in a hostage situation. I expect retaliation, torture and threats, tension; instead Patchett spun a cheesy, romanticised turn of events of a supposingly incarcerated ennui. For example:

  • Roxane combs and braids the hair of her female captor Carmen and invite her to lie in with her some morning.
  • Every man is smitten with Roxane Coss and declares their loves (including one Fyodorov) for her (pluz!). Her accompanist stayed with her even when he had the chance to walk free as an infirmed but instead die for her in the early pages of the book.
  • The Vice President Ruben Iglesias discovered his new found love of scrubbing his own floor and gardening his own backyard (oh pluz!). He also wants to adopt Ishmael (one of the young terrorist) as his other son and his friend Oscar Mendoza wants Ishmael to become his employee when they are freed.
  • Gen Watanabe speaks and translates all languages, Russian, Greek, Spanish, English, Japanese, little Chinese, Danish…(unbelievable! which language he doesn’t speak?)
  • The inmates maintain illicit relationships and no one seems to mind or discovered.

When he (Hosokawa) opened the door to her room there were tears in his eyes more often than not, and he was grateful for the darkness. He didn’t want her to think that anything had gone wrong. She came to him and he pressed his damp face into the fall of lemon-scented hair. He was in love, and never had he felt such kindness towards another person, never had he received such kindness. Maybe the private life wasn’t forever. Maybe everyone got it for a little while and then spent the rest of their lives remembering.

I can accept the story that the captor and the hostage are making friends, I can accept the extension of friendship through chess playing or sharing of music. There is just so much sentimentalism that made me cringed and I thought it was a little overboard given the circumstances that they are in. I do appreciate that in an impending end of our lives we would think about:

  • How little we know about other people until something like this happened and strangers are grouped together in such unlikely event.
  • The regrets and the thoughts we have towards our lost passion or our loved ones.
  • About the fate of those young terrorists, how their lives would be different if they are allowed to live like normal kid.
  • The beauty of music that unites people of different tongues and dissolves animosity between opposing tribes.

I think I could live with that, but not the first set of the bullet points. Without giving too much away, you will have to read the book to get what I mean.

The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. “One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived” (pg. 197).

As time passes, the boundaries between hostage and terrorist begin to blur. Friendships are formed; passions flare, and mutual interests and talents are discovered. The captor and the hostage settle in a discerning daily routine. As the days become weeks and the weeks flow into months, an uneasy rhythm marks the time spent in captivity as the world is reduced to the four walls of the Vice President’s mansion.

One discussion question I came across in a reading guide goes like this:

At one point Carmen says to Gen, “‘Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?'” (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: “Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier.” Joachim Messner (Swiss, the negotiator) then says to him, “‘You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them'” (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the “real” world?

Well the author wants you to believe that they prefer it there in captivity, and that is what bothers me. The balance between maintaining a realism of the grave predicament of the hostages and the need to be touchy-feely about the situation is tipped towards the latter, and that unnecessary epilogue at the end of the book confirms that this book may be better classified as a romance story rather than one who deals seriously about life, death and what it means to be alive.

Rating: 3/5

The only part that made me feel any emotion was the dramatic ending before that ludicrous epilogue. Bel Canto builds to an unexpected and poignant crescendo that seals the fate of the people in the mansion. That is as good as it gets, the first half was good, the second half is too cheesy for me. Unless you are a romantic, I would wonder why this book would win the Orange Prize in 2002. A good read but not a fantastic one. 

I am reading this the Global challenge and A to Z Challenge.

Paperback. Publisher: Fourth Estate, 2002; Length: 318 pages (in a very tiny fonts!); Setting: Lima, Peru. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 26 June 2010 

About the writer: 

Ann Patchett (born December 2, 1963) is an American author. She received the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2002 for her novel Bel Canto. It was placed on several top book lists, including Amazon’s Best Books of 2001. Patchett’s other novels include Run, The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, and The Magician’s Assistant, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and received the Nashvill Banner Tennessee Writer of the Year Award in 1994.  

Patchett was inspired by the Lima Crisis (see below) when she watched the crisis on the news. The opera in the story was added when she thought how operatic the crisis was. However, Patchett did not know anything about opera prior to writing the book. To build a knowledge of opera, Patchett read books about opera, attended local theatre performances and listened to opera whenever she could. 

Patchett has stated that writing her books has been a progression. She always wanted to write with an omniscient third person narrator, but stated that she always went back to a narrative structure she could handle. She was pleased when she was able to write this book in the narrative she wanted. 

The basis of this book was a prologue in Gen’s perspective where he told us that this book is about how he met his wife. However, Patchett’s mentor Elizabeth McCracken told her that the prologue was not needed, so Patchett took it out. Also, Patchett’s editor wanted her to take out three lines. One of the lines was about the plants growing a half-inch over the course of an hour. Patchett insisted on keeping the line and changed the length to a half-centimeter. 

What fascinates me to read further was about the Lima Crisis:

The Lima Crisis 

The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on December 17, 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru, Morihisha Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. Although strictly speaking the crisis took place at the Ambassadorial residence in the upscale district of San Isidro rather than at the embassy proper, the media and others referred to it as the “Japanese embassy” hostage crisis, and that is how it is conventionally known. 

Most of the hostages were soon released. After being held hostage for 126 days, the remaining dignitaries were freed on 22 April 1997, in a raid by Peruvian Armed Forces commandos, during which one hostage, two commandos, and all the MRTA militants died. The operation was perceived by most Peruvians to be a great success, and it gained worldwide media attention. President Alberto Fujimori initially received much credit for saving the lives of the hostages. 

Reports have since emerged suggesting that a number of the insurgents had been summarily executed after surrendering. These findings have prompted civil suits against military officers by relatives of dead militants. In 2005, the Attorney General’s office in Peru allowed the charges and hearings were ordered

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


7 thoughts on “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

  1. I guess I just have to read it again. I read it and it moved me, but then I promptly forgot it (so it must not have moved me all that much!) but now I’m very curious about it, especially given your interpretation. Maybe next time I need a book I will pick this up again!!!

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | June 27, 2010, 4:02 am
  2. I have this book on my shelf and have high hopes. Looks like they won’t be met. I’m not fond of book that is overly sentimental or dramatic so I may end up as disappointed as you. Too bad, as the real event that inspired the book sounds super interesting (I didn’t know about it until I read your review).

    Posted by mee | June 28, 2010, 12:49 pm
    • @Mee, I agree with you that the premise of the story was super interesting. I have a feeling you will cringe at those cheesey stuff. It feels too naive, too unrealistic… but you be the judge!

      Posted by JoV | June 28, 2010, 9:06 pm
  3. I´ve been putting off reading this for years now. I´ve heard good things about it, but the cheesy romance thing doesn´t sound like my thing at all!

    Posted by Bina | June 29, 2010, 8:45 pm


  1. Pingback: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett « JoV's Book Pyramid - June 15, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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