Before “Bel Canto,” the only Ann Patchett novel I had read was “Run.” While I enjoyed “Run,” “Bel Canto” is simply in another league altogether.
World-famous opera singer Roxane Coss sings at the birthday party of a powerful Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. He would never have attended this event if not for Ms. Coss, his favorite opera singer and perhaps his obsession. The president is also scheduled to attend but cancels at the last minute; his obsession is a soap opera that he refuses to miss that night. Soon, uninvited guests show up: terrorists. Representing “La Familia de Martin Suarez,” they include several generals and many young people (including two girls). They seek the president but settle instead for all of the able-bodied men and Ms. Coss.
For four months negotiations between the terrorists and government officials wax and wane. In the meantime, terrorist and captive alike fall in love with Ms. Coss, especially after she begins to sing every day. In fact, both sides learn to peacefully co-exist in the vice-president’s house. Friendships form. Love blooms, just like the over-grown garden in the backyard. Captors and captives actually seem happy right where they are. No one wants to go back to their former lives. They are having too much fun.
One would expect the captives to identify with the terrorists, as this is not uncommon. Patchett employs a nice twist: the terrorists also identify with the captives. That’s what makes this novel so unique.
What holds them all together is not who you might think. Everyone is drunk on Ms. Coss, that’s true. However, she is not the thread; it is Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, who becomes indispensable to everyone. He provides a voice, even if it is in translation. It is Gen to whom they tell their secrets. Without him, everything would fall apart. I sense they all know this.
The beauty of this novel stands in stark contrast to the brutal killings at the end. Although I knew it would not end well for the terrorists, I, like the captives in the book, began to sympathize and even empathize with them. I grew to like them. I was especially shocked by Mr. Hosokawa’s death. In the beginning, readers will think the terrorists “bad” guys. Yet, in the end, government officials become “bad” guys.
The marriage between Gen and Ms. Coss seemed sudden. Is it real love? Or merely a way for Ms. Coss to put herself back together again? Is Gen the only person who can help her do this? One could make a good argument for this.
I’m unashamed to say Patchett made me cry. “Bel Canto” was released in 2001 and won the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, deservedly so. Next up is “The Magician’s Assistant.”