Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Published: 2005
Pages: 352

Rating: 8 out of 10

A country somewhere in South America is throwing a birthday party for the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa, in hopes of convincing him to do business with them. While he has no intentions of doing so, Mr. Hosokawa is convinced to attend when they offer to book Roxanne Coss, a famous opera singer, for the event. But just as Miss Coss finishes singing, a group of gun-wielding terrorists bursts into the building, planning to take the President hostage. Upon finding that the President is not in attendance, they decide to simply take everyone at the party as hostages, until they figure out what their next course of action is to be. People from countries and cultures all over the world are now trapped together in a mansion, united by a translator and an opera singer with whom everyone is fascinated with. As the weeks slip by and they are still not released, the hostages gradually begin to relate with and even befriend their captors, as the beauty of music unites them.

This dazzling story was amazing, and is one of my favorite books of the year. It was simply gorgeous.

Ann Patchett has a tender, poetic way of writing that I would indeed call musical. Whenever she wrote about music in this story, I felt moved, just as the characters themselves did when they heard it.
Although the events in this story are quite dramatic, Patchett's writing was firmly believable. Never for a moment did I say to myself "That wouldn't really happen..."

Every character is stitched together carefully and emotionally.
I loved Mr. Hosokawa, who is a rich and powerful man, but is also quiet and shy. Unlike most businessmen, he is enamored with music, opera in particular. He has always made time to listen to his opera, and Roxanne Coss is his favorite soprano.
Roxanne, who is perhaps the most memorable presence of this story, is an opera star who travels the world touring. She is glamorous and just a tiny bit haughty, in an elegant sort of way. I pictured her as Emmy Rossum, which I am probably getting from the Phantom of the Opera movie. Roxanne shows herself on numerous occasions to be strong willed, passionate, and caring. I very much admired her character.
Gen, the translator, was another favorite. He has a gift for languages, and Patchett often compares his talent for translating with musical abilities. Gen's own thoughts and opinions often become lost, as he is too busy telling other people what other people have to say. His skills make him the most useful of the hostages, both amongst them and to the terrorists.
Carmen, one of the two young female terrorists, falls in love with Gen. She is a passionate, intelligent girl (and also very beautiful). I pictured her as a young Keira Knightley.
There were others - there was the vice President, Ruben Iglesias, who gets through the captivity in his own home by pretending he is hosting an event and must keep the place orderly. Or the accompanist, who is so in love with Roxanne that he is willing to die for her. Or the boy who learns he has a talent for singing, inspired by Roxanne.
Every character was beautiful, both terrorists and hostages.

The lines between the terrorists and the hostages are clear at the beginning of the story, but by the end, the line has blurred considerably. Even in the beginning, the captors are obviously not looking for bloodshed. They see no need to kill anyone, and yet they are trapped. If they simply let everyone go, they will lose everything they have worked for. The hostages are their only way out, even though it was never their intention to have more than one, much less hundreds.
Later in the story, Gen expresses to a negotiator a desire for his life here, trapped in the mansion with the terrorists, to never end. He says that he thinks everyone would be happy. As Gen is a highly intelligent, logical man, I doubt that he truly thought that this wish could be. Yet, there was such a sadness to his words. A few chapters ago, he had also forced himself to acknowledge the fact that Carmen, the girl he'd fallen in love with, was a terrorist. Perhaps in captivity, their romance was alright, but how would it ever be able to exist in the real world?
In this way, their captivity has created a sort of idyllic, flawed paradise for many of the captives.

I loved the subtle romance of this book, and I loved the relationship between Roxanne and her lover (I won't say who it is). Everyone in the place was in love with Miss Coss, in varying degrees. One man even boldly goes up to her and professes undying love to her, telling her his life's story as if all of his days were leading him to this moment.

The ending made me cry, and I don't think that I will ever forget how strongly the horrific scene played out in my mind as I read it. The epilogue, which is far more happy, nevertheless left me dissatisfied. Two characters from the story are brought back, years later. However, I was confused, and then outraged. It did not seem like a fitting ending whatsoever. I can't say more without giving it away, but I wish that it had been a particular different character in the epilogue.

Bel Canto is a lovely, lushly written, powerful story that I will now be recommending to all of my friends. It is stitched together as intricately and beautifully as the character's relationships within the story.

A wonderful book, and very highly recommended.