Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Bel Canto

Author: Ann Pathett
Format: Trade paperback 318 pages and audio 11:19
Narrator: Anna Fields
Awards: Pen/Faulkner award 2002
Characters: Roxann Coss, Gen, Mr. Hosokawa, Carmen
Subject: Opera, captivity, terrorism
Setting: Unnamed South American country estate
Genre: fiction
Source: Public library
Challenge: Book club reading

I'm not sure how I avoided reading this book for so long. I think the fact that all the blurbs mention the word "terrorists" and make the hostage taking situation seem to be central, made me decide this wasn't for me.  But it really isn't the normal terrorist/hostage story at all.  Bel Canto is a story of love, of music, of human beings' ability to maintain their humanity in spite of hardship.

Roxann Coss, a famous American opera singer is giving a concert in honor of Mr. Hosokawa in the home of the vice-president of an unnamed S American country.  In attendance are people from around the world who have come ostensibly to wish Mr. Hosokawa a happy birthday, but really are there to court his business. He has come only to hear his idol sing. The guests speak a variety of languages - English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian, who knows what else.  Mr. Hosokawa has had the foresight to bring along his brilliant translator, Gen Watanabe who can speak almost every language in the room.

A group of terrorists invades the party, sends all the women home - with the exception of Roxann - and settles in for a long period of 'negotiation' to meet their demands.  They don't seem to have formulated their demands very well.  In fact, they are a disorganized bunch consisting of three apparently has-been generals, and a rag-tag group of very young, eager but inexperienced rebels.  As the siege drags on for months, the real story unfolds.  The hostages become friends with the terrorists; the terrorists become comfortable with their "guests" and feel no compunction to end the stand -off, especially since they are in a gorgeous house with good plumbing, the government sends in good food, they have TV, and they have Roxann to sing opera for them everyday.  In additon, two of the guards are revealed to be women, and this adds even more human interest to the story.

This could have been a dull, dreary story about imprisonment, deprivation, and depression.  It wasn't.  It was a glorious, uplifting story of human beings making the best of what they've been given.  I'm sure there must be some scientific studies someplace about hostages bonding with their captors.  In this story, it is easy to see how it could happen.  I didn't like the ending, but I won't spoil the story by giving it away.  I will simply say it was too neat and the only part of the story I found not easy to believe.

It's a perfect book for a book discussion group and I can't wait til our group gets together in three weeks to see what everyone else thought about it.  I'm only sorry I didn't read it years sooner.


  1. I've avoided this one for years as well. You've aleviated my fears.

  2. I read this book several years ago. I really liked it as you did & was surprised by the turn it took after the terrorists arrived & settled in!. Unfortuately, as you discovered, the ending wasn't good which always drives me crazy. I also liked Ann Patchett's writing style. I'm glad you ejoyed most of the book!

    ~ Amy

  3. I too read this years ago, when it was first published and I liked it very much. I can't actually remember the ending..but I don't remember having a problem with it either. I 'bad' ending can ruin a book for me.

  4. I picked this one up last year at the library book sale but still haven't read it. Thanks for the great review, it's given me the impetus I need to put it on top of the pile. Hostages bonding with captors? Isn't that the Stockholm syndrome? I think it is anyway.

  5. I like this one too ... and it was very different than I expected. I loved how the terrorists were kind of like little disorganized kids and the strange dynamic that arises between them. I tried some other Patchett books after this one but they didn't satisfy as much.


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