Bel Canto by Ann Patchett *WOW!*

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Bel Canto
What had been a few pockets of careful whispering at first was now a steady hum as people returned from the bathrooms. Having stood up and stretched their legs, they didn't feel as obedient on the floor. Quietly, people began to have tentative conversations, a murmur and then a dialogue rose up from the floor, until the room became a cocktail party in which everyone was lying prone. Finally, General Alfredo was driven to shoot another hole in the ceiling, which put an end to that. A few high-pitched yelps and then silence. Not a minute after the gun went off, there was a knock on the door.

The powerful Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, is in an unidentified country in South America attending a birthday party in his honor, where the well-known opera singer, Roxanne Coss, has just completed her sixth song for the evening. At that moment, the lights all go off, and a few tentative minutes of darkness later, they come back on. But even before they can sigh in relief and carry on with the dinner and the encore, armed men suddenly burst into the room from every window. A long hostage crisis was just beginning to unfold.

My first thought when I realized that this was focused on a hostage drama, was how someone can write 300+ pages about an abduction. By then, I had guessed that this was going to be a character-driven novel, since there can't be much plot moving this story through 300 pages, unless it was a cross between Terminator and Inception. Even for a character-oriented fiction aficionado like myself, there's only so much character analysis that I can take. Having started reading this book with that presumption, I was really surprised when I found that I couldn't put this down. There was some kind of magnetic pull from this book. Bel Canto is an amazing Orange Prize winning novel written by Ann Patchett that shows a possible hostage situation, involving very inexperienced hostage takers and a huge number of well-known people responsible for important decisions in their respective countries in the room who are now at the mercy of their hostage-takers.

This book did move slowly for me - Ann Patchett's prose is so beautiful and descriptive that the reader does get to feel, see and hear everything. I remember that my initial thoughts about the writing was that it was too colorful and laced with so many superlatives that I could feel my attention waning. After about 50 pages however, I was hooked. I realized that the slow reading speed was just what I should adopt - I was enjoying the writing so much that I didn't want to give in to any speed reading tactics.

The interesting part of Ann's writing was how she made us care for the captors as much as for the captives. At some point, I began hoping that everyone gets a happy ending. Of course, we already know what the ending is within the first few pages. But when that ending came, it had a very dramatic feel - imagine a powerful soundtrack playing as the actions are played out on screen. That's the effect the eventual climax had on me - the feel of a reel spinning in my mind's eye.

It's very hard to say who the principal characters are in the book. There's Mr. Hosokawa, the opera lover and long time Coss-fan who agreed to come to this party that means nothing to him only if Roxanne Coss sings at the party. Then there's Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, who also happens to know a lot of languages and ends up serving as the interpretor for almost everyone at the party. In one sense, Gen is the main character of Bel Canto - he serves as the main connection between several characters at the party, the hostages and the abductors. Then again there are all those hostages, who however vain, have several passages for themselves. And then there are the abductors, who aim to terrorize, but who still have a naive poignant side that comes from their hard upbringing. I was most impressed by how well I became interested in each character, without feeling overwhelmed by their sheer number. Besides, the writing moves smoothly, almost imperceptibly, from one character to another.

The single thread that holds the whole book together is opera, which I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of. Nevertheless, that didn't detract the enjoyment quotient of this book. Roxanne Coss is a majestic singer - her singing can hold an entire audience captive and breathless - a fact she was well-aware of and did make good use of to demand favors from her captives. I felt that her singing prowess is just a tad glorified. But Ann did have a purpose for the excessive praises - Roxanne's singing is what holds the whole band together. It's when she sings that everyone is able to forget their troubles. And since we are mere spectators in the whole drama (we may as well have been hostages), Roxanne's singing feels all the more beautiful - a fact that is thus reiterated.

Although it's clear that I totally loved this book, that's not to say that there are no faults. I found it unbelievable that with so many important people stuck in the room - people who sat in elegant offices and made daily decisions that affected the lives of a lot of people - the outside world seemed barely keen to rescue them. Of course, we never really know what the outside world is thinking. The only connection that those in the house have with those outside is through the lone negotiator, Messner, who himself seems to lack any motivation, drive or power. Besides for such a huge band of abductors, they didn't really seem to have a plan. These however do not impair the flow of the story because it's clear that much of it is a mockery of how hostage dramas unfold in real life - the unreasonable demands, the senseless negotiations. Overall, I'll say just pick up this book - read it! I will warn you that it may probably move slow for you, but if you happen to enjoy Ann's writing, that won't bother you for long.

I am a bookaholic and I purchased this book.

20 comments:

Misha said...

Wonderful review! I bought this book recently. Like you, I was doubtful about this book when I read it was entirely about a hostage situation. But I really loved Ann Patchett's Run and I agree that her writing is beautiful. I can't wait to read Bel Canto!

hcmurdoch said...

Great review! I LOVED this book when I read it (it's been a long time) and it still creeps into my brain sometimes, definitely the mark of a great book).

bermudaonion (Kathy) said...

I bought this when our Borders was going out of business and haven't read it yet, but you sure have made it sound good. It sounds like a book that will really make you reflect.

Aarti said...

Wow, great review, Aths! I've had this book for years and haven't read it yet, even though I know it's well-loved by many readers. Thanks for the in-depth review- I will try and pick this one up soon!

Lisa said...

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I was just mesmerized by Patchett's writing, the characters and the flow of the story. One day I will read it again; I've been hesitant to do it for fear it could not live up to my memory of it.

Marie said...

I'm glad to hear how much you loved this Aths! I have had this in my TBR for-ever and have considered getting rid of it multiple times... and always hold on to it. now I need to read it!

PBurt said...

I loved this book - none of her others compare in my opinion (although I want to read her newest). I truly enjoyed the flow of this book - it flowed very much like an opera.

Sandra said...

Glad you liked this book, it's one of my favourites.

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! I hope you read Bel Canto! I can't wait to read my next Patchett book!

Athira / Aths said...

Exactly! I found I kept thinking of this book for days even after putting it down.

Athira / Aths said...

It is a wonderful book! I hope you get to read it sometime soon!

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you get to read it soon! It's an amazing book and I don't think I even got to say half the amazing things about this book.

Athira / Aths said...

I have to reread it some time too! I can understand the worry - I do hope it stays amazing the second time around.

Athira / Aths said...

Oh no, don't get rid of it! You should read it once - it's a truly amazing read!

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! Glad to hear that!

Athira / Aths said...

Awwww.. I was kind of hoping to read more of her books. I will I guess, but I'll make sure not to keep my expectations high.

Albert_castro18 said...

i love Ms.coss , as elegant as the vice pesidents mansion, her voice shines like light through the gloom and despair of the hostage situation, as she passes the room, i contemplate becomeing her hostage, her voice a saprano lifts me higher than the russians never ending cigarettes...............cool book and Ann Pratchett is the shit

Elemillia said...

I really enjoyed reading your review.  I felt very similar to your reaction on it.  At some point, though, it just seemed like I was reading just another novel story, not a hostage drama.  And then the ending was so brutal. Check out mine, if you get a chance, and tell me what you think: http://personalliterarybookfrenzy.blogspot.com/2012/03/bel-canto-winner-of-penfaulkner-award.html

Athira / Aths said...

Do glad that you enjoyed this book too! I felt as if I was under some spell!

Kristie Saumure said...

Ann Patchett never fails to captivate! I always look forward to her next book with bated breath. State of Wonder was another favorite.