Bel Canto

It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

Bel Canto follows the story of a group of prominent politicians that fly into an unnamed South American country for the birthday party of a Japanese businessman named Mr. Hosokawa. The highlight of this birthday party is not just the extravagant house of the Vice President of the unnamed country, but the famous opera singer, Roxanna Coss. The party goes from tame to wild when a group of terrorists takes everyone hostage. Initially, the party-goers are terrified of what’s to come. But, as the weeks go on, the terrorists begin to forge relationships with the party-goers until the situation turns from dire to one of the most intricately crafted stories about Stockholm Syndrome that I have ever read. 

I was fortunate to discover Ann Patchett earlier in the year when I listened to The Dutch House. I was rather curious about her other works and was thrilled to find that my mother is a huge fan of Ann Patchett and owned four other works. Bel Canto was my mother’s recommendation and that automatically warranted high standards. Unfortunately, while there were many high points to the story and its prose, there were just as many low points that detract from the story. 

Let’s start with the high points. Patchett clearly is a talented writer. She has a knack for character development especially in terms of relationships. The relationship between Gen, the translator, and Carmen, one of the terrorists, was subtle interwoven in the story and added to the feeling of trust that begins to develop between the hostages and the terrorists. The interesting part about the relationships that develop is that Patchett is careful to always distinguish that the terrorists are terrorists and that the hostages are hostages. She is careful to remind the audience that this is a story about Stockholm Syndrome and in order for it to be that, there has to be a hostage and a kidnapper. While she does blur the lines between hostility and friendliness, she incorporates a Red Cross medic, Messner, to remind the audience and the characters what the situation looks like from the outside. While it may appear to be romantic on the inside, it’s still a matter of being taken hostage. I really appreciated that she didn’t just create explicit trust between the hostages and the terrorists. She took the time to build up the story and so the climax and beyond had me turning the pages so quickly that I practically tore through the book.

The development of the story was both a blessing and a curse. The story didn’t really start until page 200 and that made it a slow read. I couldn’t really get into the story and so in the time that I read this book, I had lost interest and read two others. When I finally hit that turning point in the story, I saw the appeal. But it’s definitely a slow read. I also have to say that the content was slightly disturbing. No matter how kind the terrorists were to the hostages, I wonder how the lines became so blurred. These people were still armed and kidnapping prominent figures in government. Incorporating the fact that the terrorists were hesitant to kill any of the  hostages just served to take away from the believability of the story because it alerted the reader of the fact that this is just a story. It’s not the kind of story that you can lose yourself in. In terms of unnecessary additions to the plot, I would say that the epilogue was the pitfall of the story. While I could understand the appeal to incorporate it, I found that it didn’t make sense. The time in the house was traumatic for many of the hostages. While they may have gotten to know each other, I find it hard to believe that they kept in touch for many years and that two people would marry each other simply out of nostalgia. 

Overall, it wasn’t a bad read. It was just a slow read that requires meticulous patience when reading. Patchett’s prose is beautiful and there’s a lot of promise in this novel that makes me excited to read the rest of my mom’s collection. But there were parts that took away from the supposedly realistic feel of the story and that was inevitably the downfall of this book.

Rating 5/10

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