Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I'd been interested in this novel for a while, but my memory floats a bit and so when I came across it in the sad dollar bin, I rescued it. The book's title, Bel Canto, is a reference to both opera, its polyglot lead and the overall tone. I expected the hostage drama to be a brutal depiction of the event. I was wrong. Ann Patchett threads her work with tender unexpected moments that lull the reader into a fantasy world, where children carry guns and men love opera.

A powerful Japanese businessman has been lured to an unspecified South American country, in the hopes of building a business relationship. The bait is a private performance by his favorite Opera diva. The story begins at the moment terrorists sweep in to the party. Their goal to capture the president is thwarted (because he's at home watching his favorite soap opera), and so they settle in. And that's when the killing starts.


Where this scenario goes next is the key to Patchett's craft, most writers would take the story into the violent direction of killing off hostages, and focusing on negotiations. Instead, the author allows an aura of peace to float through the pages. I never even questioned when the standoff would come to an end, or how it would play out. Was there even a standoff? The Washington Post cover blurb reads, "Bel Canto is its own universe." It's entirely true. When the building is violently stormed in the last few pages it's a shock. Completely unexpected. How is that possible? With as many hostage standoff's that have played out on television, we know how they end. Ann Patchett's magic is building to that horror by making you forget it will happen. She creates such unusually likable characters and weaves the differences of language like cashmere. The effect is numbing.

Brava, bravissima! Isn't that what you yell to the Opera Diva?

Next Book: The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue