Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I had heard much about Bel Canto in the last few years and how it was a must read. It was not a book that I would have normally picked out as a must read for me, but it is included on my 2 book club reading lists this year and I will be hearing Ann Patchett lecture in November, so its time has come!

Katsumi Hosokawa has traveled from Japan to an unnamed South or Latin American country where his birthday will be celebrated at the home of the Vice President. He is being wooed by the country so that he will build a factory in the country, but he has come on the occasion of his birthday to hear Roxanne Coss, an operatic diva with whom he has been enamored. He is an operatic aficionado and the evening will be made special with her performance. However, immediately after her performance, the lights go out and the house is stormed by terrorists. The guests, including Hosokawa, Coss and the Vice-President are taken hostage by three generals and accompanying soldiers, most of whom are teens.

Throughout the course of the siege and novel that spans over four months, the reader sees a transformation in not only the hostages but also the captors. Since we know how the scenario will be played out, our attention is riveted to the changing relationship among the cast of characters. The lives of all are centered around music and the opera. Coss continues practicing, a new accompanist is found, and a prodigy is discovered. Love affairs are initiated even among the least likely of people. It is almost as if life inside the house has come to a sense of normalcy and comfort.

As much as music is a central theme in
Bel Canto, so is language. Gen Watanabe, Hosokawa's interpreter, is a pivotal character. Through his translations from Russian to Spanish to Japanese to French, the the secondary characters become able to communicate in another way. Despite his facility with the language, Gen has a very difficult time expressing himself until he works with Carmen, a terrorist, in helping her learn Spanish. Realizing that language is devisive in this situation the characters become dependent upon the Gen's ability to bring them together.

Patchett's strength in
Bel Canto is her ability to describe situations, characters, and setting in an almost poetic way. It mirrors the opera in its lyricism and rhythm. The reader sees in the following the metaphor for the captivity.
"The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived"
I had expected to be blown away by this book considering all the press that has been devoted to it and its inclusion on the list of recommended reading for AP English, but I wasn't. Patchett's strength is in her mastery of words. Unfortunately, for me, at least, with the inclusion of the epilogue, she had too many. An interesting premise, to be sure, but not as gripping as I had wished.

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