Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Title:  Bel Canto
Author:  Ann Patchett
Release date:  May 31, 2001
Publisher:  Harper Perennial
Pages:  352
Genre:  Literary fiction
Source:  Personal copy

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 for the president – who has, unfortunately, decided not to attend the event.  When the terrorists realize that they are not going to get what they came for, a hostage situation occurs – fifty-eight important people from around the world, including the opera singer and the Japanese businessman, are trapped inside the house with these terrorists for an indefinite period of time.  As the stand-off occurs, unexpected friendships, bonds, and even romantic relationships form inside the mansion.  But the situation clearly cannot last forever, something has to give – will it be the terrorists, or the government of this country?

That summary was not easy for me to write because while Bel Canto has a somewhat simple premise, there is so much more to the novel than just the fact that it is a hostage situation.  And that’s what makes it so difficult to talk about, too, there are so many layers here and I don’t think I can properly explain my feelings on the book.  But I’ll certainly try.

There are so many wonderful things about Bel Canto. I was expecting a lot from the book, and I actually think it defied my expectations.  What absolutely kept the story moving for me was the different characters I was able to fall in love with.  Patchett really brought these people to life for me – from Mr. Hosokawa, to Roxanne, to Gen, to Carmen – every person in the book was written with a truly distinct voice and I loved them all.  The relationships between them were what made the book so special.  In spite of the terror they were all feeling, they formed these deep bonds and intense friendships and even fell in love … and it was just such a joy to read about them.  I especially enjoyed when we got a little peek into the terrorists’ minds.  Understandably so, the reader wasn’t given much from inside their heads, but there was enough to understand that most of them were just as scared and confused as the hostages were.  Many of the terrorists were young, under eighteen even, and were just doing what their superiors has told them to do – and living in the mansion during this time was the most luxurious life they could have ever hoped to have.  It was no wonder they weren’t anxious to see the situation come to an end.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t talk about who with who, but I will say that there were two significant romantic relationships in Bel Canto that really solidified towards the end, and these two were my absolute favorite things about the book.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I read more about these people and the love they had found in this unexpected place.

Obviously eighteen terrorists and fifty-eight hostages cannot live together in the vice president’s mansion in love and harmony forever.  While reading the book, it was quite clear that this situation would end at some point – and it was also clear that the end would not be pretty.  So there was this ominous feeling throughout the novel that really got into my bones when I was reading it.  In the back of my mind, no matter what was happening in the story, I constantly felt this vibe that something Very Bad would occur.  Soon.  While it made me uncomfortable to feel this way, especially as I was falling more and more in love with the characters, the feeling really propelled me to keep turning the pages.  At certain points throughout the novel, I literally could not stop reading.  It was all I could do to read slowly and savor the book.

And Bel Canto is a book that deserves to be savored.  Because Patchett is a master of her craft – really, her writing is divine.  The way she put the story together and got into these characters’ heads, and did it all with beautiful phrases to be savored, she truly amazed me.  The only thing about Bel Canto I did not like was the ending… and not because it wasn’t a good ending, because it was, but it made me cry and it made me very, very sad and other than that I don’t want to spoil it.

Bel Canto is a wonderful book that I highly recommend.  It is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

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34 thoughts on “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

  1. Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorite reads. I felt exactly the same way about the characters and Patchett’s writing in this one. I have enjoyed some of her other books, but I never felt like they were up to the writing in this one.

    • I read one of her other books, I can’t remember the title, years ago, and I didn’t really like it. The Patron Saint of something or other? Anyway, I really would like to read Run, so hopefully I can do that soon.

  2. I agree with Lisa – Bel Canto is one of my favorite books ever! The first time I read it, when I got to the end and the inevitable event that had to occur, I was so upset that I threw the book across my room and accidentally hit my then-roommate in the back. lol. So, needless to say, the reaction I had to the book was really, really strong – as it should be with a great book! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and how much did you love Gen and his patient, teaching ways? Great review!

    • I reacted very similarly at the end – no violence, but it caused me great sadness for sure. I thought it was so genius of Patchett hos she built up the characters and this story so well to make us care SO much about what would happen to them in the end. It really was a great book, wasn’t it?

  3. This is the second review I’ve seen of this book this week and you both had different opinions of the novel. I really liked reading how this book made you feel and ultimately that is a sign of a good book!

    • Yes, I definitely had an emotional reaction to it. I’ve seen other reviewers who did not enjoy it as much, so I think it’s just different strokes for different folks. :)

  4. I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile now. I’ve read a number of reviews on it over the years–some positive and some negative. It does sound like something I would really like and I am glad you recommend it so highly. Great review, by the way!

  5. I loved Bel Canto when I read it a few years ago and you capture the reason perfectly in this review! It was just so beautiful but I was filled with dread at the same time. It was heartbreaking.

  6. You’ve most definitely sold me on reading this novel. I’ll be requesting it from the library as soon as possible. I like the sound of the atmosphere of the novel and from what you have shared this sounds like a book that I will definitely enjoy. Great review!

  7. Thanks to my lovely readers I’ll be reading this one this year. Your review makes me want to move it to the top of the pile :)

    • I would definitely try this one first. I read another of Patchett’s books years ago and didn’t really like it too much. Although I hear that Run is really good, too.

  8. I have owned this book for several years; I may have even bought it & sold it at a used bookstore at one point or another. I love Ann Patchett; she was raised in my state of Tennessee, which makes her dear to my heart. After reading your glowing review, I am once again resolved to read it. It’s the whole terrorist plot that keeps me from it, but I think/hope once I begin, I won’t be able to put it down.

    • The terrorist thing isn’t as bad as it sounds. As you can see from the summary, they don’t get what they want and therefore end up just being characters in the overall story. It really is a great book and I think you’d love it. :)

  9. After reading Run a couple years ago, I haven’t decided whether I want to read this one or not give my disappointment with Run. But its on the shelf to be read. I’ll get to it eventually. Thanks for the review.

  10. I really wanted to like this book, but it didn’t really work for me. I know this was a story about characters and not plot, but I still felt it was incredibly slow. Maybe it was my mood at the time, but I just felt like nothing happened in this story. The characters were interesting, but not enough…

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