Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Summary: Beautiful, tragic story of a temporary utopia that can never last.

Just over a year ago I listened to a short audiobook by Ann Patchett about marriage.  Since then I have wanted to read one of her longer fiction books.

But the descriptions of the books kept putting me off.  Her first book, the Patron Saint of Liars is about a home for unwed mothers.  Run is about a father trying to keep his children safe, The Magician’s Assistant is about widow who finds her former husband had a secret life.  All of her books seem to be about tragic subjects.

Bel Canto is about a group of terrorists that invade a dinner in an unnamed Central American country to kidnap the President. But the President is not there and instead the terrorists hold the entire dinner party hostage.

The story evolves into the story of how those being held hostage re-discover themselves outside of their normal lives and how the lines between hostage and terrorist break down. I believe this is inspired by a real long term hostage crisis in Peru in 1996. But other than the basic idea, I do not think that the real events are much reflected in the book.

What ends up happening is that many of the hostages and their captors end up in a temporary utopia.  They like the world they created. But it cannot last. The government will not allow it to last.

The story is enriched and complicated because there are so many languages being spoken by the captors and the hostages. Only Gen, a translator for a Japanese businessman, can speak them all. So he is constantly on call. All of the people were originally together to hear a Soprano Opera star sing.  And it is her singing that really is responsible for breaking down the walls and bringing beauty into the place. But indirectly it might also be her singing that extends the time of the hostages and increases the tragedy.

Patchett does a very good job moving from the terror at the beginning of the book, to the utopian lightness in the middle to an ever increasing sense of impending doom as the book progresses. The end is a bit abrupt and I am not really satisfied by the epilogue. I like the characters and I can totally see the epilogue happening. But I am not sure if it really moves the story in the right direction.

It is a beautiful lyrical book. It is sad and tragic with a mid-section of hope and love. I cannot handle too much tragedy in my reading, but if all of Patchett’s books are this good I will keep reading her.

Audiobook note: There are a couple of places in the audiobook that have 30 or 40 second repeated.  I notified Audible of the problem.  The narration itself was near perfect.

Bel Canto Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

6 Comments

Adam, I read all your short reviews and many of your longer reviews. Thanks for this one, because I’ve heard a lot about this book recently. Why recently? Ann Patchett is a Nashville author, and a year or so ago she opened an independent bookstore that has proved to be popular. It’s called Parnassus Books, if you want to look up the site, watch an interview with her, and maybe come visit the next time you are in town.

I enjoyed very much this book and State of Wonder, but I was so disappointed by her latest: Commonwealth. What did you think?

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