April 30, 2009

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


I could just leave it at that, but I think you probably expect something in the way of an explanation, eh?

Bel Canto is the story of a hostage situation in an unnamed Latin American country. This is not a crime novel. There is no gritty tragic detective trying to save the day or anything of the kind. The story is not in the crime itself, but in the situation it creates. 200 fabulously wealthy and famous people from around the world have gathered at the Vice President's home for a private concert of great opera star Roxane Coss. There are diplomats and corporate moguls, as well as a translator accompanying his boss and an opera loving priest who was allowed to listen from the kitchen. As the concert ends, suddenly the lights go out and a small army of rebels descends from the air conditioning vents. A standoff follows.

So what happens when a crowd of rich and influential people is forced into close quarters with a pack of teenagers from the jungle for an extended period of time? Again, not what you'd expect.

There are so many beautiful things about this novel. The premise in and of itself is elegant. But there's more. This book is, as people like to say, multi-layered. But it's not layered with the precise and definitive textures of an onion or even a parfait. It's more like a fine chocolate, with so many things to appreciate: the depth of flavor, the sweetness, the bitterness, the texture, the way it melts on your tongue, the aftertaste, the scent.

In the first place there is the writing. I'm from the Stein / Hemingway school of thought. A word is a very pure thing and ought not to be used carelessly. It's easy to see when a writer not only chooses her words with care and taste and precision, but when she really loved that word and savored it on her tongue. That's what poetry is supposed to be, a boiling down of language, a story in a few potent words. And that's the way Patchett writes. Don't misunderstand; she's not one of those horribly annoying people that uses melodramatic adjectives in place of sentences. Rather her sentences are composed of only the most perfect words; nothing more and nothing less.

Then you have her character development. The way the novel begins with a quick sketch of the crowd and its major players is the way many novels simply continue without further development. But Patchett keeps going, gracefully, diving a little deeper each time before letting us up for air. You really get to know and love the characters, in an easy organic fashion.

Then you have the situations she sets up. Usually in a book that involves hostages and terrorists there will simply be a lot of struggling with ropes and halted conversations between clenched teeth about escape routes and weaponry. Patchett is much more realistic. How will these people interact as they prepare meals, wait to use the bathroom, watch television together? Most writers skip over these scenarios, wanting to get at what they see as the meat: escape, rebellion, fighting! But Patchett's drama exists in these very spaces. And it is in those spaces where people fall in love.

And then there's the linguistics. The guests at this party are from all over the world. There are Russians, Germans, Japanese, French, Spanish, Dutch, American, and more. The terrorists themselves speak a local language and only a smattering of Spanish. Enter Gen, the lone translator, who is caught in the middle of negotiations, requests to use the facilities, declarations of love. It's a study of how people can communicate with and without the use of spoken language, what language can and cannot do for us, and more universal languages that transcend words, like love and food and music.

Music! Everyone listens to it, but I wonder how many people really love it. A lot of people casually say they love music, but does that mean listening to the radio on the way to work, or does it mean laying on the grass, tears rolling helplessly down your face as the vibrations of it radiate through you? It's this second kind of love we see in this book. Roxane Coss sings in several different languages that she herself does not speak, but the words don't matter. It's the language of the music itself that resonates and enraptures the hostages and captors. If you've never heard a live performance of orchestra or opera, you may not understand this. Believe me, it is not the same stuff you hear from a speaker. And it's even more so to anyone who has ever played an instrument. The characters' love and awe of Coss' music is transferred to Coss herself, who enjoys attentions no hostage before has ever dreamed of.

There's only one thing I didn't like about this book; then ending. Not just because it was over, which was a very sad event, but the ending just didn't seem to mesh with the rest of the book. It was too final, too decisive, and a little nonsensical.

Even bearing that in mind, I would give this book a thousand stars if I could.


  1. I've never read Ann Patchett before, but you definitely sold me on this one. It's going on the list!

  2. I've been putting this one off for so long--maybe it's time to put it on top of the pile.

  3. After I read the ending, I remember that you said something about it so I had to come back to read your review. I agree...it doesn't fit (not to mention I didn't like it!). It makes me want to re-read the whole book to see if I can figure out why she brought it to that conclusion. If you just take that off of there, I think that this book is one of the best (if not THE best) I've read all year.

  4. For some reason, I was under the impression that this was a romance novel, so avoided reading it. I was recently on vacation (in South America, by the way) and needed a book for the plane, so I picked up this book. I was totally blown away! What a wonderful novel. This was wonderfully written. I agree about the ending, however. I'll definitely add more Ann Patchett to my reading list.

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