review: bel canto

3 10 2008

I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.  Part of that is that I don’t want to ruin it for anyone as the way the books turns and the relationships that develop are much better as a surprise.

Bel Canto focuses on a group of individual that are taken hostage in an unnamed South American country.  The people are there for a birthday celebration of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese business man who is besotted with opera and with one singer in particular: Roxanne Cross.  The government officials, eager to have Mr. Hosokawa’s company bring some business to their country or at least seem to be bringing some of their business there, entice him to this birthday celebration with the promise of a performance by Roxanne Cross.  As her performance ends, all present are  taken hostage when a planned kidnapping of the President (who was supposed to be in attendance, but isn’t) goes awry.  The rest of the book focuses on the experiences of the hostages, their captors and the relationships that form between them.

I found myself completely captivated from the start.  The narrative voice is pitch perfect in this novel, at once able to move from the inner thoughts of one character to the next while at the same time maintaining a step or two distance – almost as if the narrator is an unseen character in the house with them, watching and feeling along with the characters, but always an observer who is one step removed.  The range of characters and the connections that they make among them are the real joy of this book.  There are also hints dropped about how certain characters will look back on things that remind the reader that the narrator already knows how this crisis ends.

What was interesting was the way in which the “real world” faded away, just as it does for the hostages so that the place they live and the routine they develop becomes a world in and of itself.  Many of the characters allow themselves to start thinking of a future beyond that present they’ve created, without thinking of the realities of their situation as seen by the world outside.  Whereas outside there is a firm dividing line – hostages and captors – inside the house those boundaries become much more blurred for the characters and it is the collusion of these two views at the end of the book that makes for such a shocking ending.

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