Bel Canto was the last book I began in 2009 and first book I finished in 2010, and wow, how haunting and lovely. I don’t think it’ll be one of my favorite books ever, but it was perfect for when you want a good book that will affect you but isn’t impossible to read.
Bel Canto opens in an unnamed South American country at the Vice President’s house with a famous opera singer performing for a birthday party hosted for a potential Japanese investor. He actually has no intention of opening a company in this country, and came only to hear his favorite opera singer. The singer, Roxann Coss, turned down the request to sing several times until sufficient money was offered. The President of the country bailed on the party so he could watch his soap opera. And on, and on, so many of the attendees were narrowly not at the party, and that’s how life is. So when everyone is taken hostage by a revolutionary group with unclear plans or motives, it seems fantastical and not at the same time. After all, how many times do people say they could have been on a plane, at a home, anywhere something happened and then narrowly weren’t because they forgot their keys? Or didn’t have ID?
Such is the case. But when the would-be kidnappers realize that the President isn’t there to kidnap, they have no back-up plan and resort to holding everyone hostage, and are content to exist in a stalemate with the government and world at large for five months. During this time, Patchett makes both the gunmen (the majority of whom turn out to be teenagers) and the hostages fully realized characters who form intriguing connections in this isolated existence. People who don’t speak the same language fall in love, including the singer and the Japanese investor, and his translator falls for one of the gunmen who is revealed to be a teenage girl who wants to learn to read. And yet, all of these connections are fragile, and may not survive after the situation has ended.
At the same time, this slowness to start is one of the drawbacks, and I think it will see if this book improves or dulls upon repeat readings. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say I found the book moving, and well worth the time invested to get to the core of the story. The writing was also impressive, and I’d definitely read another of Patchett’s works.