“Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening — until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air-conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different countries and continents become compatriots. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped.”
Thoughts: If it were a television show, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto could be considered a highbrow, interesting, and erudite version of MTV’s The Real World – “what happens when captors and captives alike stop being nice and start being real.” It has all the hallmarks of reality television – a diverse cast of characters with their own agendas, tension and danger thanks to the terrorists’ goals, and even the ubiquitous romantic pairing. However, to compare Bel Canto to any reality show does the novel a disservice. The story may indeed be a study of human nature, but it is every bit as lovely and poetic as reality shows tend to be overly dramatic and crude.
Ms. Patchett knows how to write. Each of her sentences is beautifully structured to maximize emotional impact and nuance. The few glimpses of the unknown country are breathtaking in their clarity and precise rendering. Yet, for all of her careful depictions of setting and scene, it is Ms. Patchett’s characters which drive the novel and rend the heart. Through unique voices and exacting attention, the individuals making up the cast of characters are easy to discern from one another, something difficult to accomplish with a large cast of characters but creates a memorable reading experience when done properly. Bel Canto certainly falls into that latter category.
As the narrator, Anna Fields has her hands full with a large cast of characters from all around the globe and at all ends of the spectrum regarding confidence. Ms. Fields not only excels at the challenges of the multiple accents, she exudes the correct amount of confidence and bombast for each character. Her Roxanne Coss is every bit the diva, while her vocalization of the terrorists captures their effrontery, the growing exasperation and eventual complaisance. Hers is a careful performance as well. She delivers every word crisply, much as a stage performer enunciates. While this could very easily annoy a listener, it instead enhances the audio experience. Language and the understanding of it is a key element of the story that her precise diction illuminates the theme. The only downside is that because it is an audio experience, a listener wishes that s/he could experience the music mentioned throughout the novel. Instead, a listener must remain satisfied with a pitch-perfect written story and console oneself by perusing the Internet for snippets of the various songs.
Bel Canto is an exquisite exploration of human nature and the ties that bind one together. The fear and uncertainty the reader feels alongside the captives quickly evolves into wonder and eventually admiration as Ms. Patchett removes the political, socioeconomic, and cultural difference that normally segregate a group and forces her characters to interact at the most basic of levels. It is far beyond an envisioning of Stockholm Syndrome as the feelings of camaraderie and appreciation within the group are mutual. Yet, there is a sense of danger that constantly lurks beyond the page due to the brief but subtle reminders that this situation is still a hostage situation with very real consequences. Thanks to Ms. Patchett’s beautiful language and evocative storytelling that captures the heart of each of her characters, Bel Canto takes readers on a surprising emotional roller coaster, one that leaves readers breathless with wonder at the fragile nature of the differences that too easily cause conflict. Bel Canto leaves readers feeling hope that one day everyone, like the terrorists and the hostages in the novel, will understand and embrace each other’s similarities instead of focusing on the divisive nature of one’s differences.
Acknowledgments: Mine. All mine.