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