Sparked by Words

B Is for Bel Canto


Bel Canto, the title meaning beautiful singing, begins like some musical pieces, with an unassuming opening that leaves you wondering where you might go with this piece, but still engaging enough you want to stay. Then comes the crescendo measure that crashes through your tranquility and startles you so urgently you remain on alert for every delicate nuance, every individual solo, every puncture of cymbals and drums because you cannot close your ears for a moment. Bel Canto made me focus on the spaces between words, because even they seemed to have merit.

Ann Patchett has long been recognized for her mastery of writing craft. In book after book, she explores unusual worlds with cognizant detail and intuition. In Bel Canto, she contrasts the structured beauty of opera with the impulsive passion for social justice.  The story takes place at the opulent home of the vice president of a Latin American country where a group of dignitaries have been invited to listen to Roxanne Coss sing a famous opera. Her guests are carried into their own dreams as they listen to her. After her perfect performance, terrorists invade the home and hold everyone hostage, demanding that the country’s president show himself. They present an ultimatum, they will kill everyone, and they expect the government to acquiesce. The cymbals and drums measure.

But the president isn’t at the performance and so begins a siege, a standoff between the ill-considered plan of the terrorists and the absent, indifferent government. Weeks and eventually months elapse, the mansion enveloped in a fog so thick that nothing seems able to puncture it.  The terrorists are armed with guns, the guests are at their mercy, and even the ability to talk to each other is impossible – nearly everyone speaks a different language, a melting pot of cultures without the melt. Opera brought the guests together, but longing for power and recognition motivates the terrorists.

Two characters play key parts in the story. Watanabe is a man whose genius facility for learning languages makes him essential to every conversation, between guests, and between hostages and terrorists. Messner, a Red Cross volunteer, is the only person from the outside world to get into the mansion, as he attempts to negotiate a resolution to the crisis. Both characters are a bit of literary contrivance but are necessary to allow the plot to progress. However, Patchett integrates each into the story by giving them roles beyond their gimmicky contributions.

Locked into a tiny space, hostages and terrorists begin to see each other as human beings with similar needs for interaction and relationships. The guests realize that except for the few angry and armed leaders, the terrorists are children and teenagers, hungry for attention and opportunity that their rural roots will never provide. With a growing need for physical and mental outlets, guests and terrorists teach each other to play, sing, and create. They fall in love with each other, hostage to hostage, terrorist to terrorist, even crossing the lines. One of my favorite characters is Carmen, a beautiful young and idealistic terrorist whose facility for speech belies the fact that she cannot read, until the reserved Watanabe begins to teach her and falls in love with her.

Within the fog that surrounds the mansion, a fog of misinformation and mistrust as much as an environmental condition, everyone starts to listen to everyone else. The terrorists represent the impoverished indigenous tribes whose kids are hungry and who have no future. The guests represent the wealthy and privileged gentry who do not see the eyes, hearts, or laboring backs of the people who make their luxurious lifestyle possible.

Like opera, like sieges, like hostage events everywhere, the story ends…well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

Patchett’s facility for language makes every page sing with truth and insight but one of my favorite lines sums up the story. In love only with her art form and her skill in opera, Roxanne Coss says, “If someone loves you for what you can do, then it’s flattering…but if they love you for who you are, they have to know you, which means you have to know them.” This is the crux of the story: talk to each other and lift the fog that smothers communication.

Bel Canto made me realize that every story is a way to connect and share, and how well I achieve that in my own books is dependent upon how well I pay attention.

The book was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction.



Other books that were serious contenders for B:

The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Daniel Wallace

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos


I look forward to learning about your favorite B fiction books.



Book cover image courtesy Google images and Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers




Comments on: "B Is for Bel Canto" (25)

  1. Thank you for an intriguing review. I’ll be adding this one to my bookshelf I think (though I think Daniel Wallace’s book should win the prize on the basis of its title alone).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Big Fish is so much fun to read – don’t miss either of them. I had a hard time choosing, and next Thursday’s C is nearly impossible to choose.

      On another note, it’s wonderful to hear from you again. How are things going with your book? Any chance it will be published in English?
      I still think about how interesting your blog was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you! Trying to reinvigorate the blog at the moment – but I seem to be in the very unsatisfactory place of no longer having an actual job and still finding it difficult to fit everything in. I can’t blame a spectacularly exciting life for this – I am just not being as well organised as I should be. As for the book, it’s out in French and German, but as I think by now it’s been sent to pretty much every English-speaking publisher on the face of the planet, the chances of it seeing the light of day in the mother tongue seem pretty slim. At least until the second book (or perhaps the third – or the forty-ninth) becomes an amazing bestseller, of course…

        Liked by 1 person

      • it may not be how you envisioned your writing trajectory, but i’m so glad you might return as a blogger. as for your next book a bestseller – of course it will be.

        have you been able to analyze your foreign sales to determine why the book resonates with those audiences? maybe you could glean marketing strategies upon what you discover. otherwise, i really have to brush up my french.

        i wish you well in every endeavor.


      • I know absolutely nothing about foreign sales, sadly! I think I get some kind of statement after a year, which for the French edition is up in February. The one thing I have learned about marketing so far, is that German audiences apparently like “gory” thrillers – hence the German cover being genuinely revolting. Hope it does the trick!

        Thanks so much for your supportive words. 🙂


      • What a funny observation about German readers, but it does say something about tailoring even a book cover to fit audience expectations. Reminds me that the first Harry Potter book had a different title in England than in the US.

        BTW: I see a business opportunity here for someone – interpreting foreign sales info for American writers – don’t you think that would be useful?


  2. I will be adding this one to my long list.

    My favorite B books The Book Thief, Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), and The Bible. But for me the winner is Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for adding to the list, Andrew. All wonderful books, and I thought seriously of writing about Book Thief, but I’ve written about it before. I didn’t include Bell Jar because it’s a memoir and I’m only listing favorite novels in this round, but that book had a profound affect on me all through college and for many years after. Same with the Bible – not fiction. The list only gets better for getting longer, so thanks for the contribution.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, yeah it’s a memoir. Didn’t even think of that. Be well. Can’t wait to see your C. I am reviewing mine.

        I am having so much fun with this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Actually, you’re free to suggest any book that works with the letter for the day – I’m choosing to stick with fiction, also no plays, poetry, or short stories, or I’d go bonkers. The list of books I’ve read is pretty long.

        I’m so glad you’re participating and enjoying this and can’t wait to see what you pick for C!


  3. This sounds excellent, Shari. So often, books that focus on social justice end up proselytizing their opinions rather than providing the evidence. This doesn’t sound like that. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ann Patchett is subtle. Her story always comes first, alongside all kinds of universal issues. This story crept up on me so quietly that it was a bit before I saw everything else. And the second reading helped as well. Thanks for reading, Jacqui.


  4. This sounds fascinating. I will have to get kindle so as to read while traveling! Great write up.


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, I saw this book in a charity shop today and wish I had picked it up now! Bronte

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read Bel Canto years ago and loved it. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m not so sure I’d like a story about terrorists. I shy away from the political. Still, I do like the Latin culture even if I have no desire for their politics. Maybe I should explore outside my comfort zone more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand your qualms but the focus is not on acts of terror as much as on people and how they build relationships with each other under duress. Patchett always chooses challenging subjects. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I love Patchett! Have often quoted from her “This is the story of a happy marriage,” how she says it should be harder to get married & easier to get divorced.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a book I haven’t read yet, but I’ve read several others of hers. Each of her books is its own wonderful little universe of discovery, unique and intimate. There is something worth remembering and quoting on every page.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “If someone loves you for what you can do, then it’s flattering…but if they love you for who you are, they have to know you, which means you have to know them.” This is the crux of the story: talk to each other and lift the fog that smothers communication.”

    So true.


    • There are so many wonderful lines in Bel Canto, but this one really encapsulates the essence of the story. It’s a book I recommend often, one of the criteria for my choices in this series.


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