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Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto is a wonderful book on the forming of bonds between people and the transformation of character with circumstance, by a great American writer, Ann Patchett.

Ann PatchettAnn Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963 and raised in Nashville. In 1990, she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. It was named a New York Times Notable Book for 1992. Patchett’s second novel, Taft, was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best work of fiction in 1994. Her third novel, The Magician’s Assistant, was short-listed for England’s Orange Prize and earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth book, and has later been followed by Truth & Beauty and Run.

The background for Bel Canto is a real event: In 1996, terrorists took 400 people hostage at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru. Patchett watched this on TV.

In the book, somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening — until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air-conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage.

However, what begins as a panicked, life-threatening event evolves into something seemingly quite different, as terrorists and hostages forge Bel Canto, by Ann Patchettunexpected bonds and people from different countries and continents become compatriots. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped. Art and beauty, represented by the music of Roxanne Coss, play importants parts in this.

Both stand-offs lasted for months, but in Patchett’s retelling in Bel Canto, the clash of language, culture, and fear behind the mansion’s walls also becomes a story about the power of music and the power of redemption.

Bel Canto is a wonderful study of human nature, human beings, their universality, and idealized beauty and love. The necessity to establish unconventional routines and fill the time to adapt to the circumstances, creates a most intriguing and unusual background for bonding. The characters develop odd relationships among themselves and between themselves and some of the terrorists. And characters change and adapt to the new circumstances, discovering within themselves traits that had previously not been brought to the fore.

Some of the characters here you will love, and some you may revile, but each of them is complete and entrancing. Patchett manages to make them living individuals.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure if I liked the book, but felt I probably didn’t. By the time I had finished reading it, I loved it. The book may be a little slow on the uptake, but it will catch you. Mind my words!

– Peter

Buy Bel Canto (P.S.). Also by Ann Patchett, The Magician’s Assistant and Run.

“The most romantic novel in years. A strange, terrific, spellcasting story.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Patchett’s ability to evoke sense of place. . .is near magical in itself.”
Publishers Weekly

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  1. Ex Libris | Dec 17, 2007 | Reply

    I read this book a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it. Patchett’s prose was stunning. She could easily convert a reader into an opera lover. So glad you enjoyed it, too!

  2. cinberk | Dec 17, 2007 | Reply

    I am also a big fan of this book, and of Ann Patchett.

    Would highly recommend Truth and Beauty, a memoir of her life and friendship with fellow author Lucy Grealy. A rich and mesmerizing account of two fascinating lives and careers. The book works on several levels as Patchett chronicles a transformative, sometimes difficult relationship, and Lucy’s long, well-fought battle against a ravaging cancer and her own demons.

    Also loved Magician’s assistant…and am looking forward to Run.

  3. Peter | Dec 18, 2007 | Reply

    Thanks for the comments, Ex Libris and cinberk! Ex Libris: While I was preparing the review, I read an online interview with Patchett. Not only can the book turn a reader into an opera lover – Patchett said it actually turned her into one. She became an opera lover while writing the book!

    And cinberk – I have not read Truth and Beauty, but I definitely will, seeing what you write about it!

  4. josbookshelf | Nov 4, 2008 | Reply

    I’ve read the book last year and I especially loved Ann Patchett’s lyrical writing style. I want to write a review about this beautiful book but I have to re-read it and I just don’t have the time, considering my books-to-be-read pile. Your review, however, hits the nail on the head; so I hope you don’t mind if I link my post to this. Thanks!
    In case you want to check, it’s:

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  1. From Bel Canto « Jo’s BookShelf | Nov 4, 2008

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