Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Maturity Level: 4
View on Goodreads
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
Among the hostages are Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Swiss Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands. Days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months. Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give.
I don’t know how to adequately express how much I loved this book or why. It was so beautiful, and I connected with it so deeply.
There was a profound love for music, especially opera, that permeated this entire book. As a former musician (did you know my bachelor’s degree is in music?) I loved this element. It was wonderful to be reminded of what exactly it is about classical music that is so stirring, and how music can be so important in your life. I loved seeing characters connect with music for the first time. It’s something you can’t experience again, and it happened for me at such a young age that I don’t remember it. But reading about it was enchanting.
One of my favorite things about Bel Canto was the balance between the dry, very sarcastic sense of humor, and the touching emotional moments. Patchett’s sense of humor is very similar to mine, and I often found myself laughing out loud at her one-liners. The beginning of the book was especially satirical, biting without ever being cruel. But as the book went on the emotion really started to seep through. I was shocked to discover about halfway through that this is a love story. A beautiful love story. I was feeling all of the feels!
I really connected with the characters as well. None of them are anything like me, and yet I loved them. They were so unique, so lovable. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where I came to care so much for the characters. They were so real to me.
I also appreciated the way Patchett humanized both sides of this stand-off. The terrorists are initially viewed as, well, terrorists. They’re from the jungle, they all look exactly the same, and the hostages even name them based on their weapons because they can’t even tell who is who. But as the story goes on they not only get to know their names, but each terrorist has a personality, unexpected talents, families. They form relationships with the hostages. The hostages, too, are men that it would be easily dismiss. They epitomize the one percent, men that are so preposterously wealthy and white (mostly white, anyway), that it would be so easy to just stereotype them. But they, too, end up showing great depth of character. One passage in particular I remember both puzzled me and made me laugh when a Russian businessman schooled the opera singer, Roxanne, on the cultural differences in the way we view love. Seeing both sides as just regular old people was so powerful, maybe even more today than when the book was published in 2005.
And when the inevitable end finally came, reader, I do not exaggerate when I say that I sobbed. Ugly tears. I cried for half an hour after the book was over. I was so moved, so touched, so brokenhearted, so full of joy. All I wanted to do was pick it back up and immediately read it all over again.
I loved this book. It blended the great elements of literary fiction with a sort of heist story, giving it a very unique feel. I would highly recommend it, especially to musicians.