Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening -- until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air-conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different countries and continents become compatriots.Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped.
In an unnamed small South American country, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of a powerful Japanese electronics company, has been invited to celebrate his fifty-sixth birthday, in hopes that he will consider opening a plant in the host country. Mr. Hosokawa has so far refused all the advances the country has made, and has no intention of developing his business in a part of the world that is plagued with drug trafficking and guerrilla revolutions. But the government has finally succeeded in securing a visit from him by having his favourite opera diva, Roxanne Coss, make a personal appearance and sing a short selection from her repertoire at an exorbitant rate. No expense is spared for this soirée to ensure the guests are well taken care of in the luxury to which they are accustomed.
Just as the singer has finished the last song and her audience is still floating on the echoes of the soprano's enchanting voice, the grand living room in the Vice-Presidential mansion is invaded by a group of terrorists who demand that the President be surrendered to them. Only the President has cancelled his appearance at the very last minute so that he would not miss his favourite soap opera, and so the guerrillas decide they will hold the VIP guests from various nations as hostages instead. The rest of the novel takes place within the house over the course of many weeks, as the guests and captors negotiate terms among each other and surprising connections are formed and evolve, in no small part due to the highly developed language skills of Mr. Hosokawa's personal interpreter, Gen Watanabe. This is certainly not a novel for those seeking story and action. Instead, it is a reflection on human nature as a social animal, and on the real love and affection that can be present within a confined setting, even among people of opposing factions, when the pressures and conventions of time and real life are taken away, which I suppose is best summed up as being an excellent portrayal of the Stockholm Syndrome. Some fascinating character studies in a beautifully written novel that has left it's mark on this reader.
The group was assembled to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa. They were foreign dignitaries, priests and government officials – and the character that tied them all together was Roxane Coss, the American soprano who was the evening’s entertainment. Once the terrorists invaded the mansion, it was Roxane who called the shots. She used her lovely voice as collateral and was able to negotiate shampoo, food and other amenities for her fellow captives. In turn, she sang for the terrorists and hostages – and they all fell under the spell of Roxane’s music.
Spending months together blurred the lines between the terrorists and hostages. Together, they played chess, took reading lessons, cooked and made love. The hostages, mostly older men, showed fatherly affection to some of the terrorists. With this attention, the teens began to blossom. A boy could sing, a girl could read, another could play chess. They transformed from being jungle children to individuals with hearts and souls – all wanting love and approval.
Bel Canto runs at a slow pace, which probably won’t suit many readers. However, if you love character-driven stories, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint was the epilogue, which tied together some unnecessary loose strings. Sometimes, stories just need to end on its tragic note – because that’s what happens in real life. Other than this small flaw, I enjoyed Bel Canto and look forward to reading more fiction by the talented Ann Patchett.
A third-world country in South America throws a birthday party for Mr. Hosokawa, a rich Japanese businessman. To lure him (and possibly his future business) there, the services of the world-famous opera singer Roxane Coss had been engaged for the evening. No one expected to end the party as a hostage of a terrorist organization bent on kidnapping the President. But the President wasn't there; he'd decided at the last minute not to attend, and the terrorists are left with nearly 200 hostages they didn't want and no backup plan. And so things drift on for weeks and months as the Generals try to figure out what they can get from the situation.
There are many wonderful character sketches in this story, but five in particular stand out to me. Mr. Hosokawa, his translator Gen Watanabe, Roxane Coss, the female terrorist Carmen, and the Vice President Ruben Iglesias. The relationships they build, stepping out on the tenuous threads of translated speech and interpreted expressions, are the magic from which the story is spun.
And running underneath everything, popping up in every scene and playing a part in almost every private motivation is the power of music. It is like a character in its own right against the backdrop of human violence and tragedy. The way it is handled reminds me so much of Steven Galloway's The Cellist of Sarajevo, another story in which music is a bold statement of beauty in the face of ugliness. Music redeems; music is a force no one was expecting to reckon with.
The tone and certain events in the story also reminded me of Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. People trapped in a house together try to make sense of their colliding worlds through physical relations, and though it "works" for a time, it cannot last forever. It is also slightly jarring how almost every male in the house is in love with Roxane Coss, but I suppose, given the magic of her voice and the enforced boredom of their captivity, that this is not altogether unrealistic. I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with portrayals of men being unfaithful to their wives for any reason, especially when it is shown as natural and acceptable. Perhaps it is natural, but never acceptable!
Patchett has a very sensitive narrative voice and she probes her characters gently. The terrorists become people too under her hands as she teases out their nebulous hopes and the things that make them distinct (though I'm sure it helps that they are not the more violent faction of terrorists in the country who would have systematically shot their hostages to force the government to act). The reader feels a strong empathy with many of the characters, despite their flaws. I even ended up liking Fyodorov, whom I thought at first was just pushy and coarse.
I feel both unsatisfied and relieved with the ending; I can't quite decide if it feels contrived, or if it's the only possible finish for a story like this. It is not really a happy ending... as much as I love those, I realize that a perfect, bloodless denouément would mar the entire story.
If you are, like me, not overly familiar with opera, this is the kind of story that will make you want to listen to it, try to find the beauty that is so powerful in the novel. I enjoyed the book a great deal but I imagine opera-lovers would find even more to relish here, where opera becomes entwined with literature and human tragedy. We are all of us on the stage.
This isn't a book for younger people, but mature readers (and especially fans of opera) will find much to enjoy here. Recommended.
The novel appears to be based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru in 1996-97. While sticking to the basic outline of the historical event, Patchett explores the effect of prolonged captivity on both the hostages and their captors. Each takes on a new role within their enclosed society. A high government official becomes a janitor. A business executive becomes an accompanist. A diplomat becomes a chef. Terrorists become students. The only thing missing is a prophet, for no one imagines life beyond a day-to-day existence, or what might happen when the crisis ends.
I wouldn't recommend rushing through this book. The middle is more important than the beginning or the end. It raises questions about the difference between who we are and what we do, about communication, about loyalty and friendship. This would be a great book group selection since it offers so many possible discussion topics.
There is a strange coda to 'Bel Canto' (the last two pages) that contains a twist, but apart from that it is a very simple uni-dimensional tale about a group of armed rebels who take a houseful of people hostage, and this action backfires because the intemded target, the President, wasn't at the gathering, having decided to stay away to watch his favourite soap. As a result of this, and the rebel commanders' decision not to negotiate, a standoff deveops that stretches into months. Inevitably (and predictably) the boundaries between the takers and the taken begin to blur as everybody comes to terms with what has happened.
The joker in the story (pack of characters) is the singer Roxanne Coss. She beguiles everybody with her presence and her singing. She eventually falls in love with the party host (Mr Hosokawa) and they start a clandestine relationship. As does the translator (Gen Watanabe) with one of the two rebel girls, Carmen, whose gender is not initially apparent because of their being dressed identically to all the men. Everybody learns about their true emotions in a less than satisfactory way (nothing negative ever happens); all is progress, all is development and everybody forgets about the actual, deadly situation in which they are really living. So love and education flourish: Gen teaches Carmen how to write: the priest teaches the other rebel girl, Beatriz, how to pray; Mr Hosokawa teaches Ishmael how to play chess; Roxanne teaches Cesar how to train nhis voice and becomes intoxictaed by the porpect that he is even beyttter than she is although throughout the book her singing has been the fluid that has kept the whole magical event suspened in a timelessness that we all know will come to its inevtitable end. In that respct, there is no suspense in this npovel because there are no realistic alternative outcomes.
When everybody is so far into their suspension of disbelief that they have come to believe, like a fact, that nothing will ever penetrate their fantasy island from outside, the military invade the dream, killing all the 'rebels' (by now we are not so sure, they are just some of the millions of 'under-privileged' who never have a chance to escape from their own 'reality'). Along with, and at the same time as the rebel Carmen is killed (murdered?) Mr Hosokawa takes the same bullet as he tries to protect her... maybe he knows that the translator Gen is in love with her, the translator without whom none of the events within the novel would have been possible. This device, the conduit through whom all parties can communicate, is essential to the very fabric of 'Bel Canto'.
The story would unquestionably have been much more clumsy in its construction, and perhaps impossible to construct at all without his enabling lingua franca - many different languages all able to communicate with barely a struggle. As a Japanese national working for Mr Hosokawa he naturally speaks his mother tongue, but miraculously also speaks (at least) English, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Greek and Portuguese. As he starts to waver with fatigue, the story starts to ready itself for it grisly penulimate act. He is worn doiwn by his duties (he always has to be there when the red cross intermediary from outside, Messner, arrives daily); he always has to be available for the 'generals' whenever they need him; he is always needed by the many suitors for Roxanne (the 'only' woman involved as it is reported by the media later); and latterly he finds even less energy for his group role because he is making love to Carmen in the china cupboard.
When the shooting is over and everyone who has to die is dead, the twist in the tale can be straightened out. Of the two couples who developed loving, sexual relationships, only one from each couple survives.. having both lost their hostage lover, and knowing that the other is the only person in the world who will ever understand what happened during that fhose fateful months, the story ends with their marriage and projected happy life together in Italy - Bel Canto indeed!
I loved this book! I fell in love with some of the characters myself, from both sides, and this is one of the very few books I've read recently which I desperately didn't want to end, partly because of what "the end" might mean, but also because I got caught up in the "life" of this sequestered group, even as they did themselves. Almost a fairy tale, but so full of humanity. Beautiful.
I actually went into Barnes and Noble knowing that I wanted to read a fiction book, but had no idea what to pick. I wandered the isles for a long time and suddenly a woman who saw my wandering, pulling books off shelves, reading the backs, and putting them back pulled this book off the shelf and told me it was worth it! She said that she reread the first chapter a couple times.
The premise sounded quite strange. A birthday party, a business man from Japan, and an Opera singer have their evening and weeks ruined and transformed by a group of gun-carrying, guerrilla-terrorists. It didn't seem like my thing-guns, business, South America, and opera. Not only did it not seem like my thing, it also seemed like there was no way it could all blend together.
Oh, but it did-and masterfully. The first sentence hooks you, "When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her." From there on out, I could hardly stand to put the book down.
If you are looking for an intriguing South American adventure or just a WONDERFUL book, pick this up.
A Fair Warning: The ending is weak-the book started strong, stayed strong, and I think just continued the story too far, but it still brings resolution. The weak ending shouldn't hinder you from this exciting read.
A strange set up, but somehow it works and sets up a potent tone. It could have taken any of a hundred different turns and still been great. As it was, I couldn’t keep the end out of my head for a few days; it just kept rerunning backwards and forwards in the background. Powerful little book.
As the weeks lengthen into months the reader gets to know both the hostages and the terrorists, all of whom become surprisingly well-adjusted to their new circumstances and each other. The guest of honour's translator becomes an important player as he translates for negotiator, hostages, and terrorists alike. Patchett's talent lies in being able to elicit empathy with each of the characters no matter which side they are on. Intriguingly, the proceedings are reflected in the slow-moving chess games played. The story is mesmerizing but Patchett's writing is simply entrancing. Even though the outcome is preordained, one clings to hope. The ending came almost abruptly, and although it was not exactly to my liking, this is a book that I can recommend strongly.
Roxann Coss, a famous American opera singer is giving a concert in honor of Mr. Hosokawa in the home of the vice-president of an unnamed S American country. In attendance are people from around the world who have come ostensibly to wish Mr. Hosokawa a happy birthday, but really are there to court his business. He has come only to hear his idol sing. The guests speak a variety of languages - English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Russian, who knows what else. Mr. Hosokawa has had the foresight to bring along his brilliant translator, Gen Watanabe who can speak almost every language in the room.
A group of terrorists invades the party, sends all the women home - with the exception of Roxann - and settles in for a long period of 'negotiation' to meet their demands. They don't seem to have formulated their demands very well. In fact, they are a disorganized bunch consisting of three apparently has-been generals, and a rag-tag group of very young, eager but inexperienced rebels. As the siege drags on for months, the real story unfolds. The hostages become friends with the terrorists; the terrorists become comfortable with their "guests" and feel no compunction to end the stand -off, especially since they are in a gorgeous house with good plumbing, the government sends in good food, they have TV, and they have Roxann to sing opera for them everyday. In additon, two of the guards are revealed to be women, and this adds even more human interest to the story.
This could have been a dull, dreary story about imprisonment, deprivation, and depression. It wasn't. It was a glorious, uplifting story of human beings making the best of what they've been given. I'm sure there must be some scientific studies someplace about hostages bonding with their captors. In this story, it is easy to see how it could happen. I didn't like the ending, but I won't spoil the story by giving it away. I will simply say it was too neat and the only part of the story I found not easy to believe.
With the overarching, beautiful story of the power of music and art, the tale unfolds as it becomes difficult to sort the good from the bad. As the hostage situation drags on long after the initial group of women and others were left go, the remaining people slowly learn about each other, and, in a wonderful poignant writing style, the author draws us into the the psyche of both the captors and those holding captive.
Strong character development (perhaps a little too over drawn), leads us to understand the intentions of those who are beaten down to the point of wild actions. And, we grow to understand those who, while they may be rich, have their own crosses to bear.
Throughout the story of the have and have nots, the overriding differences of each group and each person, the reader remains captivated, savoring each and every word.
An incredible story line, a exquisite writing style, strong character development, and the power of music which captures all souls and transcends the evils of life, renders this a must read.
I was absolutely enthralled by this book. I felt a connection to the characters and the events that took place. The writing was beautiful and made the story come to life. I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys a story that unfolds into something completely unexpected.
When they realize that their fish has slipped the net, the terrorists are stymied. They are not of the more radical groups and therefore don't kill the guests; they are much more interested in changing government for justice than creating carnage. Eventually, they release the men who aren't important enough for ransom or bargaining and all the servants and women; all except Roxanne Coss, the opera singer. They heard her singing as they infiltrated the house, and fell in love with her as surely as the other people in the house. After the novel has set up this closed set, the remainder of the book examines the relationships that develop between the people trapped in the house.
It is a violent set up, and yet the story often focuses on love, music, art, friendship, and family. One of the author's themes is that humanity is capable of immense beauty amidst great cruelty. The lines between the two capacities are unclear, within individuals, within countries, within societies. As such, our perspectives on characters shift as we read. The terrorists, who of course begin as the bad guys, are humanized as the novel progresses. The government has been unjust towards them, suppressing human rights and political protests. They have every right to be incensed, and yet the move to violence is just as wrong as the government's actions. The hostages are the victims, and yet they are rich and powerful, they are representatives of oppression in a sense. Our sympathy is with them, yet as the story unfolds it appears that their captivity unleashes a deeper humanity in them that the bustling world of politics and business has stifled.
Other reviewers have written that the story makes the reader wish they were held hostage. I see what they mean by that comment, even though I don't agree. The likelihood that reality would be as kind as the situation in the book strikes me as near impossible. In the novel, though, the hostage situation becomes a surreal place set apart from the real world. The plants quickly grow up around the house, concealing every last trace of the outside world, and with Roxanne's beautiful voice performing every day, the vice president's house becomes a dreamscape where regular routines are stripped away. Love is purer, fear is stronger, art is almost a physical presence. The hostages and terrorists alike begin to succumb to this atmosphere. The reader, too, falls under the spell. Patchett's writing is so beautiful, enchanting, that she draws us in with her words and we want to be there. Often, when I read a book with a violent premise, I am a little scared to read because I expect to encounter scenes that will upset me. I still read it, and I can appreciate a good book even with that grit or angst. Yet this novel was not like that. Every time I opened its pages I found myself thinking, how beautiful - the writing, the relationships, the music. Even at the end, when the inevitable sadness strikes, it was heart wrenching and yet somehow still lovely.
I have a problem when I write about a great book. My inclination runs to writing essays. This novel is worthy of analysis and discussion, so my review may be too extensive. Clearly I enjoyed this book, and there is much more about it that I never even mentioned. For instance, how she manages to portray such a vast range of characters, with multiple points of view and back stories, and they all feel fleshed out. I've never read a book (of this small length) before that successfully presents that many characters, main and minor, and blends between their point of views so seamlessly. Before I start another long thread of thought, I will stop and simply report that this is a fabulous book and you owe yourself the pleasure of reading it.