I wasn’t sure I was going to like Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto when I started reading it. I mean – it didn’t seem like a book that would either grab my interest or hold it. But a funny thing happened to me about 75 pages in…I started to care about these characters.
Bel Canto is actually based loosely on something that happened in Lima, Peru. On December 17, 1996, the terrorist organization Tupac Amaru took over the Japanese embassy there. From this nugget of truth, Patchett unspools the story. It’s Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday and the government of an unnamed South American country are hoping he will open an electronics plant there. They have hired Roxane Coss to sing and the only reason Mr. Hosokawa has agreed to attend the party is because she will be there; he is an opera fan and she is the best soprano in the world. The party is being held at the home of the country’s Vice-President; the President had to attend to ‘matters in Israel’. In the middle of the festivities, the house is taken over by a group of terrorists.
What happens when a group of wildly different people are forced to share close quarters? The book forces the characters- a wonderful, eccentric group- to be both more and less than they are. A priest, for example, finally has the opportunity to hear confession; Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, a central character named Gen Wantanabe, gets to converse in Spanish, German, French, English, and Russian and because of it- is privy to people’s most private thoughts and Roxane Coss uses the power of her voice to tame the savage beast- so to speak.
The terrorists themselves are also central to the story and we learn much about them…and I dare say, we come to care for them every bit as much as we care for the privileged party-goers. There is a message to be had in this book and Patchett’s fine prose illustrates that without hitting the reader over the head. This was a book club selection and, truthfully, not everyone loved this book.
For me, though, this is a book about love- how it shapes us and changes us, how beauty transforms and transports and how you just might take a risk if you thought it might be your last opportunity to do so.