Bel Canto - Ann Patchett


A sad, strange, beautiful book that captured my complete attention (despite the increasingly hard-to-ignore distractions that accompany being nine months pregnant). 

 

A group of well-to-do industry leaders and their wives gather at the home of a South American Vice President to celebrate the birthday of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman who holds the power to bring much needed industry (and jobs) to the largely impoverished area. To entice Mr. Hosokawa, a devout opera fanatic, to attend world renown soprano Roxane Coss has been engaged to sing as the night's entertainment. Unfortunately, the party quickly devolves into a tensely negotiated hostage situation as a group of rag-tag terrorists known as La Familia de Martin Suarez emerges from the air vents and demands possession of the President (who is, incidentally, not in attendance). With the terrorists' initial goal thwarted, a stand off begins to unfold between the unyielding, outside government and the stubbornly idealistic terrorists calling the shots inside the house. Caught in-between are those hostages, largely important businessmen and politicians, deemed too valuable to be released. With these forty odd men, the terrorists opt to keep Roxane Coss, who turns out to be more than just in-house entertainment. Her gift of song literally becomes the reason for living for those on both sides of the divide. 

 

Despite the tense, action-packed beginning, the book's action is largely stagnant and slow moving. Instead, the driving force behind the book's compelling movement is the development of both character and relationship in the unusual circumstances created by the bizarre situation of a four-month hostage standoff. Even though the gun-slinging terrorists are the stuff of nightmares, Patchett paints their humanity - repeatedly pointing to their youth, inexperience and physical deformities or afflictions to allow the reader to form some attachment to characters that might otherwise be off-limits to any empathy. (Side note: I actually fell down on the side of the terrorists by the end of the novel - beautiful Carmen, little Ishmael, self-conscious Cesar, butch Beatriz - they were all so much more human, more flawed, than the men that were held hostage and positively changed, that is changed for the better, by the experience. In addition, I'm now terrified of contracting shingles, Descriptions of General Benjamin's festering wound settling into his eye made me cringe and curl my toes). 

 

Overall, this book reminded me of situations in my own life where things went wrong - be it a power outage, a disappointing change of plans, an unexpected snowstorm,  an unwelcome disruption of any kind - that proved to be a welcome interruption to everyday life. You leave this read genuinely believing these capitalists and politicians were better off for having been held hostage for four months. 

 

I really didn't cue into the magic surrounding the music and opera singing- as I'm by no means knowledgeable or even remotely interested in this particular art form. I lack culture in this respect, but my reading wasn't negatively impacted. Instead, I imagined my own joy at having a storyteller - someone like Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling - at my disposal in such a situation, an enthralling author willing to guide me through the empty days with their magic gift of character and plot. Even given my lack of experience with opera, I can see how art and the passion surrounding genius or talent can infuse an otherwise abhorrent situation with a sense of beauty and wonder. 

 

As for the ending - I wasn't terribly surprised but I was genuinely disappointed. A bit heartbroken, if you will. Without going into spoiler territory, I feel that Patchett did everything she could to warn the reader of the impending doom without explicitly spelling it out. I was, however, utterly baffled by the short epilogue. I felt it was tacked onto the end as an afterthought; it had no connection to the character/ relationship development that had previously taken place. In my opinion, it somewhat cheapened an otherwise thoughtful, tender read.

 

 

Quotes:

 

"There were worse reasons to keep a person hostage. You keep someone always for what he or she is worth to you, for what you can trade her for, money or freedom or somebody else you want more. Any person can be a kind of trading chip when you find a way to hold her. So to hold someone for song, because the thing longed for was the sound of her voice, wasn't it all the same? The terrorists, having no chance to get what they came for, decided to take something else instead, something that they never in their lives knew that the wanted until they crouched in the low, dark shaft of the air-conditioning vents: opera." (p. 71)

 

"'If we put a gun to her head she would sing all day.'

 'Try it first with a bird,' General Benjamin said gently to Alfredo. 'Like our soprano, they have no capacity to understand authority. The bird doesn't know enough to be afraid and the person holding the gun will only end up looking like a lunatic.'" (p. 165)

 

"Could Mr. Hosokawa say...that this was the happiest time in his life? Surely that could not be the case. He was being held against his will in a country he did not know and every day he found himself looking down the barrel of some child's gun. He was living on a diet of tough meat sandwiches and soda pop, sleeping in a room with more than fifty men, and although there were irregular privileges at the washing machine, he was thinking of asking the Vice President if he could kindly extend to him a second pair of underwear from him own bureau. Then why was this sudden sense of lightness, this great affection for everyone?" (p. 166)

 

"A kiss in so much loneliness was like a hand pulling you up out of the water, scooping you up from a place of drowning and into the reckless abundance of air." (p. 207) 

 

"She could see the battered-down portion of grass from where she was now. It was different from this vantage point, larger and almost perfectly round, as if they had spun each other in great circles, which seemed possible. She could smell the grass in her hair. Love was action. It came to you. It was not a choice." (p. 271)

 

"'It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.'" (p. 300)