Friday, February 26, 2010
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Harper Perennial, 2nd edition
Published July 2005 (first published 2001)
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
Surreal. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. Initially, when I began reading it, I was simultaneously annoyed and fascinated. Is that possible? After much thought I realized why this was so. But first let me tell you the premise of this book, which attracted me like a bee to a flower.
A lavish birthday party is being given in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman whose only reason for attending is Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano. She mesmerizes the crowd of about 200 guests at the home of the vice-president of a South American country that remains unnamed throughout the novel. But then a band of terrorists invades the home and takes the entire party hostage. As negotiations fire back and forth between the terrorists and the government through the Red Cross, weeks turn into months and unexpected bonds form between the hostages and the terrorists within the walls of the home.
Written in the third person omniscient narrative, I was frustrated when the actions and reactions of the hostages or terrorists were described collectively as all having the exact same emotional and physical reactions to a particular situation, which of course is impossible. However, as I kept reading I realized this added a subtle comic element to the story. The New Yorker called this a tragicomic novel and I concur. The author skillfully used the riveting elements of opera music and the beauty of multiple languages to engage the reader’s own emotions. If you are an opera aficionado, you will appreciate this novel. Actually, the way it is written resembles an opera piece itself, ending tragically as expected.
Perhaps because of this I could look past the times I felt the hostages could have overthrown the terrorists who albeit having weapons, were outnumbered and sometimes not too brilliant. I rated this book S because there is adultery and unmarried sex, which may make some uncomfortable. The main characters are memorable and will stay with you long after the last page is turned. The epilogue, though, caught me totally off guard, and I still do not like this ending. It would have been preferable to leave it out.
If you like stories that advocate the love of the arts, the power of humanity, and the inadequacies of politics, then pour yourself a glass of wine, put on a Puccini CD and be prepared to be taken on a strange ride with twists and turns to a semi-expected ending.
Disclosure: I bought this book at a used book store. I was not told how to rate or review this product.