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Bel Canto

A book about Opera and Terrorism by Ann Patchett

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Guns and Opera

  • Dec 3, 2003
  • by
When Ann Patchett came to the college where I work on staff to give a reading to our students, I attended. The room was packed and bursting to the seams. Her book had been assigned as part of a summer reading program for incoming freshman, discussed in groups, now discussed with the author herself, and all concluding with her reading. It was a delight. Many authors who write well do not read well, but Patchett does both - and very well.

Bel Canto is a simple enough story (and those are always the best) contained in a house, specifically at a dinner for dignitaries gathered to celebrate the birthday of a prominent Japanese businessman. His gift - an opera singer. Roxanne sings for him, and her voice captures the hearts of all who are present. This, however, does not just include the dignitaries. When the lights go out, the terrorists arrive. This is not the scene of violence one might expect. The story unfolds on a stage of seeming opposites, the terrorists in their misguided ideals and poverty, the dignitaries in their wealth and isolation. Hostages and terrorists unite and interweave in beautiful song, literally and figuratively. A terrorist falls in love with a hostage. A hostage teaches an illiterate terrorist how to read. A terrorist reveals his own musical talent, and then, his own flagging self esteem, hidden behind his ever present weapon. Such a drama cannot end well, tragedy must break in on this unlikely community of souls, but this clash of reality is appropriate.

Patchett is a writer deserving of her many awards. Her storytelling ability is keen, and her writing talent is often breathtaking. She has an eye for the kind of detail that makes a story become life. Her expression is fresh and her own. Her readings, if available (I understand she now does very few), are also a literary treat.

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review by . June 27, 2010
How Can A Story So Tragic Be So Beautiful? This is a book to read and re-read, and savor. I love the textures of the writing, how the emotions for the kidnappers build to the point of true friendship and empathy. The ending broke my heart."A South American Country" has courted business tycoon, Katsumi Hosokawa, for some time, hoping for investment in their struggling country. Finally, Mr. Hosokawa agrees to celebrate his birthday at the home of the vice-president after the invitation includes …
review by . January 10, 2010
 In a small South American country a party is being held in honor of an important Japanese businessman.  Roxanne Coss, a famous opera singer, has been hired to sing at the party in order to persuade Mr. Hosokawa, the businessman, to attend – the party’s hosts are hoping that Hosokawa will decide to build a factory in this country.  Just as the Roxanne is finishing her opening sequence, the lights in the building shut off and eighteen terrorists enter the mansion, looking …
Quick Tip by . July 11, 2010
LOVE this! The intersection of guerrilla fighters/revolutionaries with the world of opera and high art was riveting. Very philosophical, but character-based. Good when you're in the mood for thoughtful reading rather than fast action.
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
I read this book for a Book Club I was in. Wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did.
Quick Tip by . June 27, 2010
sophie loves this book
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Very good!
Quick Tip by . June 09, 2010
Very well-written, but the plot drags in some parts.
review by . November 17, 2008
Bel Canto
Bel Canto is one of those novels that is good on so many levels, it's taken me days after finishing it to put my thoughts about the story and the characters into words. This work is as lyrical and dramatic as any opera, and the word "brilliant" isn't excessive to describe the talent of author, Ann Patchett. I wondered how she came up with such a remarkable and unique story, but then learned she'd been influenced by actual events involving a hostage situation in Peru. Patchett goes far beyond the …
review by . November 22, 2002
I resisted reading Ann Patchett's BEL CANTO because it seemed that the recommendations came primarily from readers who don't want anything more in a book than a romantic escape from today. Now I'm wondering what is so wrong with that sort of recommendation! BEL CANTO is a good read: it captures your interest, creates a microcosm, populates the pages with people you would like to know, and keeps its story confined to one place so that the afterburn of the tale can be appreciated. Patchett knows how …
review by . August 04, 2002
As art imitates life, so would a group of strangers enjoy the bounty and joyful camaraderie of the most simple activities. An assortment of dignitaries, most unknown to eachother, gather for a birthday celebration in an unnamed South American country, in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese CEO. For his entertainment, the hosts have imported an extraordinary opera diva, his favorite soprano, Roxanne Coss. Her performance stuns the audience, the power and beauty of her voice astonishing. The lights …
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Zinta Aistars ()
Ranked #136
I am a bilingual writer and editor; founder and editor-in-chief of the literary ezine, The Smoking Poet. Learn more about me on my Web site--I welcome visitors!
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About this book


In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, 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 not only Hosokawa and Roxane Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Reuben Iglesias, the diminutive and gracious vice president, quickly gets sideways of the kidnappers, who have no interest in him whatsoever. Meanwhile, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while vacationing. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, and the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months.

With the omniscience of magic realism, Ann Patchett flits in and out of the hearts and psyches of hostage and terrorist alike, and in doing so reveals a profound, shared humanity. Her voice is suitably lyrical, melodic, full of warmth and compassion. Hearing opera sung live for the first time, a young priest reflects:

Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God's own ...
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ISBN-10: 0060934417
ISBN-13: 978-0060934415
Author: Ann Patchett
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date Published: April 16, 2002
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