Bel Canto

What a marvelous book Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is! It’s so marvelous I talked one of my book groups into reading it next.  What strikes me most about this book is the way a description of its plot captures absolutely nothing of the feeling of reading it.  It’s a book that has hostages and terrorists, and yet that’s not what it’s about at all.  Surely this is the only book out there that purports to be about political violence but is actually about love and joy and friendship? And the only book in which the central act is kidnapping that makes the reader feel so content and happy all the way through?

Briefly, the plot is this: an important businessman is celebrating his birthday in some unnamed South American country and a famous opera singer is brought in to entertain the guests.  The party is held at the vice-president’s house, and the president is expected to be in attendance.  A rather rag-tag group of terrorists bursts into the house just as the opera singer is finishing her performance and holds everyone hostage.  They are surprised to find no president in the house, but they follow through with their plans, holding their less-prestigious-than-hoped hostages and making political demands.  Most of the rest of the book tells what happens in the vice-president’s house over the course of many months while everyone awaits a resolution.

What happens in that house is a surprise.  I am glad I didn’t know what was going to happen when I read the book, so I hesitate to say much about it here, except that I also really want to write about it, so if you’d prefer to read this book without much foreknowledge, then you might stop reading now.

What happens is that once people get through the first few horrible days when all the women except for the famous opera singer are separated from their husbands and released and when everyone left is certain they are going to die a horrible death very shortly, they begin to relax into their new life.  They make friends with each other over time in spite of the considerable language barriers — it’s a very international group with speakers of at least a dozen languages present.  Fortunately the businessman whose birthday began the whole affair travels with a very gifted translator who knows languages well enough to do the necessary translation.

What’s really remarkable is that, after even more time has passed, the hostages and the terrorists begin to develop friendships.  It turns out that the terrorist group is not the most famous and most dangerous group everybody thought they were; instead, they are a small operation made up of a few generals and a collection of teenage soldiers, recruited from their poor lives in the jungle by the hope of a better life.  The generals are in the whole business mostly to free some family members held as political prisoners.  It soon becomes clear to the hostages that the child soldiers are more pathetic than frightening, even if they do carry around guns and harass them now and then.

Slowly, as the book goes on, the terrorists’ rules relax, the terrorists and the hostages become friends, and they spend their time playing chess, listening to music, and watching television together.  The presence of the opera singer makes a huge difference; after the shock of the kidnapping has passed and she starts to practice her singing again, she enchants everyone in the house, hostage and terrorist alike, and people can’t help but forget their differences for at least as long as it takes for her to complete her daily practice.

Many of the hostages and terrorists come to prefer their life in the vice-president’s house to the one they lived before.  It’s such a quiet, peaceful, well-regulated life, one with beauty and companionship and, in some cases, love.  All of them have had their worlds turned upside down, and yet that turns out, at least for a while, to be a blessing.  The word “blessing” seems fitting here because the mood becomes almost beatific.  The main characters undergo transformations that have little to do with the kidnapping and everything to do with becoming more open, more patient, more peaceful, more understanding.

One would think that a book about terrorists would be the last place to turn to to find joy, and yet that’s exactly what this book offers.  It’s a beautiful meditation on art, love, and unexpected opportunities for transformation.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Fiction

19 responses to “Bel Canto

  1. It sounds lovely. I’m sold!


  2. I’m so glad you liked it. I read it a few years ago when I was becoming disenchanted with contemporary fiction. Bel Canto was one of the books that restored my faith (the other was Carter Beats the Devil). I just loved the way I was completely drawn into the world inside the house, to the point where I was lulled along with them. I had to read the ending twice because I just didn’t believe it.


  3. It’s interesting how different opinions of this book are. I found it to be very plodding and while I can still recall many of the events in the book, so it has stayed with me, I didn’t really enjoy it when I read it.


  4. I read it when it first came out and recommended it to everyone, even gave my copy away because I wanted to share the book so badly. It was my favorite book that year and remains high on my list of memorable books.

    However, not one person to whom I recommended the book loved it. How could that be? The lack of response stunned me. Like Marg, my friends found the book plodding.

    Frustrated, I quit recommending it, but the power of the book still touches me.


  5. So, I had to stop reading, as I’m one of those who doesn’t really want to know too much about any book before I read it. It’s now on the goodreads too-read shelf.


  6. Fendergal — I hope you like it! This is a book I’d feel comfortable recommending to anyone.

    Becky — I can see how Bel Canto could restore your faith in contemporary fiction (and how you might have lost it in the first place…). It creates such a feeling of peace — bizarre given the circumstances!

    Marg — I can see that if you aren’t caught up in the spirit of the book (for whatever reason), it’s magic might be lost and it might feel dull. Either a reader gets into it or doesn’t, I suppose!

    Jenclair — perhaps I should be careful about recommending it then! I would think this would be a fail-safe book, but as I said to Marg, if the book doesn’t work magic on you, then it might be dull. I found the book hard to put down, though — I always wanted to stay in its atmosphere!

    Emily — very glad you’ve put it on your list! And it really is much better to find out what it’s like on your own.


  7. I have this on my shelves and have been meaning to read it for years. Now I feel completely compelled to! How will I fit it in? But never mind, I see I must find a space. Wonderful review, again, Dorothy!


  8. You know, when the books first came out I thought it sounded good and wanted to read it. But then people I know started reading it and not one of them liked it so I never did read it. But your review has given me faith again so back it goes on the to-read list!


  9. How funny — several people I know loved this book and when I picked it up I simply could not get to that point where I needed to keep reading. It’s entirely possible that I was just distracted at the time, which makes me wonder how many other books I might have really loved, had I only been in the right place to read them. And that, I’m pretty sure, is an argument for keeping books around and maybe trying them again after some time goes by!

    Thanks for this really terrific review, Dorothy. And I hope your training’s going well.


  10. I read this several years ago when I was still in a local book group. It is an excellent book to read in a group situation–lots to talk about. I have wanted to read some of her other books ever since have have a biography that she wrote. This was quite an unusual book, wasn’t it.


  11. For what it’s worth, I think this book has serious ethical problems. But I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. People who love it are obviously able to look away from the things that bother me, and they’re probably right to do so.


  12. Rosa

    Hello! I just discovered your blog (after searching for reviews of Woolf’s Night and Day, which I just finished).

    I am very glad to see your review of Bel Canto – I found it a very powerful commentary on how humanity (individuals interacting and finding love, friendship, or simply a better understanding of each other) can be celebrated in the least expected places. I very much enjoyed your review, and I’m definitely coming back for more! 🙂


  13. I really liked the beginning of the book and all through about midway but I couldn’t get past the ending! It just didn’t work for me. But, having said that, I do really like Ann Patchett’s writing. There is something there that just pulls me into her narrative. I hope your book group will enjoy it and I bet it will lead to one interesting discussion!


  14. verbivore

    I enjoyed this book while I was reading it (except the epilogue, which made me want to scream and throw the book across the room – would love to know your thoughts on this) and I liked some of what Patchett did to thwart our expectations of what a real kidnapping situation might be like…but I wasn’t entirely satisfied with her mix of fantasy and real-world. I wanted her to stick more firmly with one or the other.


  15. Litlove — I hope you will like it! I can’t believe how many books there are I go around saying I have to read very, very soon. There might be hundreds!

    Stefanie — I have to say, I have a hard time understanding why people might not like this book! But that’s just me. Apparently there are plenty of people who didn’t like it. It seemed to be a little bit polarizing, which I find interesting.

    Bloglily — I think you are so right about the time one reads books being important. There are probably lots of books I think are bad, but which I would really enjoy, given the right circumstances. I do feel just a little bit off saying that, though — I guess I also want to keep in mind that some books are just bad, and the right circumstances will not help them any. I think it’s hard to tell sometimes why I don’t enjoy a book — because it’s flawed or because I’m not the best reader for it.

    Danielle — it IS an unusual book, and perhaps that explains why opinion is so divided. I’m glad to hear it’s a good book to read in a group, as we’ll be having our discussion in a few weeks. I’m curious to see whether everyone else in the group likes it as much as I did.

    Amateur Reader — since you brought it up, why not say what bothered you about the book? You’ve got me curious.

    Rosa — thank you for stopping by and for leaving such a nice comment! I agree that the book shows how people can connect and grow in very unexpected circumstances. It’s that contrast I found so interesting.

    Iliana — I agree that the ending is troubling. But she does write beautifully — there’s something so calming about the prose. I’m curious about her other books too, although it seems they didn’t quite the good reviews Bel Canto did.

    Verbivore — I agree about the epilogue. I remember hearing that something very surprising happens, so I was somewhat prepared, but still it was a shock. I heard that she had originally had what turns out to be the big revelation at the end up front as a kind of prologue. Wouldn’t that have changed the book completely? Apparently somebody talked her out of it. I think it’s probably better not to read this particular epilogue (but how can someone not??)


  16. Two issues:

    One, as verbivore mentioned, is the use of real political violence as a backdrop for an unrelated story. The events in “Bel Canto” are based, often quite closely, on the 1996 takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru by the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. If Patchett were to take any of the real-world political ideas seriously, she would destroy the book that she wanted to write. But I knew they were there, and this is one way that Patchett infantilizes the Peruvians – their ideas don’t really matter.

    Which brings me to ethical objection 2. Say the singer was not Kiri te Kanawa, but was Celine Dion, or Sarah Brightman, or Lucinda Williams, or Queen Latifah. Would this change the story at all? It almost certainly would, for reasons I find pernicious, because of our cultural assumptions about taste and the status of opera.

    Does Patchett really believe that music tames the savage beast? And that operatic sopranos, in particular, have a universal appeal? Do Peruvians have no music of their own? None that counts, it seems, none that can’t be swept away by the superior, humanizing beauty of European art music. The French guy who turns out to be, of course, a gourmet chef is a minor key variation on this theme.

    Yes, this left a bad taste in my mouth. It led me to imagine a different novel, in which a teenage Peruvian hiphop prodigy converts the opera singer to his revolutionary cause through the ludic energy of his music. I understand that Patchett’s book is essentially a fantasy about the power of culture, and can be enjoyed as such – but only by negating the value of another culture.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve had this book at hand, so feel free to correct any errors in my memory.


  17. Mr W

    My entree to this book (which I loved) is very idiosyncratic – I am an opera lover, and this is the best novel about opera I have ever read. Normally in books, particularly modern books, opera is used to signify that a character is pompous, or gay (or often both). Patchett takes the music seriously. In fact, she structures the second half of the book like an opera — there are duets and ensembles, but every character gets an aria, in which he or she is allowed to express his or her true emotions, before the inevitable end. For me, this all worked beautifully.


  18. Amateur Reader — thanks for the explanation, and I see your points. I was kind of hoping someone else would come along and write a smart defense of the book because I’m not sure I have one. That there was a real-life story the book was based on is news to me. The revolutionary group did seem to be feckless and silly, but at the same time, I thought she showed well what drew those soldiers to the revolutionary cause and how hard their lives were. But again, I don’t know much about the situation she’s drawing on. To be honest, I can see the book being about Queen Latifah or Lucinda Williams without changing the story much (everyone seemed drawn to the power and beauty of the singer’s voice, and I’m not sure it matters what she was singing), but I do see your point about western culture as a humanizing, civilizing force.

    Mr. W. — I love the idea that the book is structured like an opera, and I would never have thought of that on my own. What a beautiful structural technique to add to the beauty of the writing.


  19. Mr W

    Thanks, Dorothy. I really like your reading of the book, and think it matched my experience of it. Which is why Amateur Reader’s comments really got to me, because they make a good point! Perhaps it’s because I am an opera lover myself, I certainly had a blind spot about this. But I do not feel the book condescends to any of its characters — all of them, both cultured European hostages and the revolutionaries, are treated with respect and humanity, which of course makes the ending all the more wrenching.


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