Bel Canto: A Novel

by Ann Patchett

Hardcover, 2001

Call number




Harper (2001), Edition: 1st, 336 pages


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.… (more)

Media reviews

''Bel Canto'' often shows Patchett doing what she does best -- offering fine insights into the various ways in which human connections can be forged, whatever pressures the world may place upon them.
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Although this novel is entirely housebound, at the vice presidential mansion, Ms. Patchett works wonders to avoid any sense of claustrophobia and keeps the place fresh at every turn.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Smiler69
"A kiss in so much loneliness was like a hand pulling you up out of the water, scooping you up from a place of drowning and into the reckless abundance of air."

In an unnamed small South American country, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of a powerful Japanese electronics company, has been invited to
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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.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Imagine being held hostage for more than four months in a luxurious mansion in a South American country. Negotiations are at a stalemate, and the terrorists holding you are nothing more than a gang of armed teenagers led by three generals. You outnumber your captors, and they are pretty lax with
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their rules. Despite the odds, you never try to escape. Why? Because your life as a hostage allows you to become a new person – a person that you couldn’t be in your real life. It’s this theme that is the cornerstone to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

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.
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LibraryThing member atimco
Bel Canto is one of those books whose characters live with you while you read it and in the spaces between your reading. I finished it last night and woke up thinking about it, pondering the way the notes fell and accustoming myself to the story they told.

A third-world country in South America
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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.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Time stands still in Bel Canto - for the hostages taken captive at a birthday party for a Japanese businessman in an unnamed South American country; for the terrorists, mostly teenagers, who hold them captive; for the Red Cross worker whose vacation in the unnamed country is suddenly extended for
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months; and especially for the reader who joins them in existential limbo. As the days stretch into weeks and months, the line between captor and captive blurs.

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.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
In a small South American country, a Japanese industrialist is given a lavish birthday party in hopes of luring his company to build a factory there. His gift, and the only reason he has agreed to come: a live performance by the world's most beloved operatic soprano. As the performance ends, a
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group of terrorists, three adults and 15 young people, take over the compound, looking for the country's President, who had promised to be there but backed out at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera. Furious at being denied their prize, the terrorists release the sick and all the women (except the soprano) and a long standoff ensues. As weeks go by, unexpected connections form among those in the house, especially among the prisoners and between prisoners and captors. The story edges towards its inevitable conclusion, although the characters', and the reader's, hopes remain till the end, and there is a surprise or two left to savor.

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.
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LibraryThing member colinhyde
I read this because my wife read it for her book club and had already read it once before, so that it became one of the very few books that she had ever read more than once, and I wanted to know whether this unusual fact could be justified by the book itself - and I can't say that I do really
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understand that now that I have read it myself.

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!
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LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
This is one of the most beautiful (and ultimately most horrifying) books I have read in years. You fall in love with the characters, knowing that...well, it CANNOT turn out well, but you get drawn into their fantasies just as much as they are.
LibraryThing member macii
This is what I call a "weekend book," you should be able to read it in a weekend, but you almost don't want to finish it so quickly. This was my first experience of reading anything by Ann Patchett and it was marvelous!

I actually went into Barnes and Noble knowing that I wanted to read a fiction
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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.
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LibraryThing member LoMa
Perhaps the finest novel I have ever read in my life. It is taut, humane, ineffably sad and optimistic. I was completely pulled into all of the characters, from the hostages, to the hostage-takers, the police, and the outside spectators. The novel creates a remarkable world with remarkable
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relationships, in which language, music, gesture, and translation are all characters in and of themselves, and in which you know the end and you so don't want that end to come. A beautiful book.
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LibraryThing member tututhefirst
Bel Canto is a story of love, of music, of human beings' ability to maintain their humanity in spite of hardship.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
Rebels in some place like Peru (?) take everyone in a party, who are listening to an opera singer, hostage.
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
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head for a few days; it just kept rerunning backwards and forwards in the background. Powerful little book.
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LibraryThing member eowynfaramir
Ridiculously sappy, do not waste your time on this book! Another reviewer gives details of the ways in which this novel pretends to realism and slides into nonsense. Do not confuse this nonsense with magical realism - that is quite another style. Patchett is sappy, plain and simple -- you will gain
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no understanding of humans from this novel.
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LibraryThing member Whisper1
What a book! Five stars doesn't do it justice. The setting is an impoverished South American land. The reader is taken to a lush home of the Vice President of the country. The President is home watching a soap opera, while in real life a soap opera nightmare unfolds as poverty-stricken,
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gun-wielding renegades burst into the home, interrupting the lovely, beautiful singing of a world-class opera diva.

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.
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LibraryThing member goose114
Bel Canto is about a terrorist group that takes over a party for a Japanese business man in a South American country. All of the men and a world famous soprano opera singer are taken hostage. The story examines the relationships that develop among the hostages and the terrorists. The seemingly
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utopia that they eventually dwell in is suddenly brought back to reality at the end of the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member Eurydice
Creative, luminous, and peppered with moments of transcendence, Bel Canto still fails to utterly convince.
LibraryThing member maribs
A botched kidnapping attempt of a South American President, at a lavish birthday party for a Japanese business man, results in an unlikely hostage situation.

I really enjoyed soaking up every word of this book slowly and thoroughly. It is written so well and every part had some little detail I
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didn't want to miss.

I loved the relationship between the hostages and the terrorists and how it evolves over the months they are together in the grand house of the vice president. I loved how the music works as a way to communicate feelings and resolve tensions. Such a beautiful and tragic love story. How could anything good come out of a hostage situation? I imagined this as a movie directed as only Robert Altman could, in the manner of Gosford Park.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
A birthday party turns into a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country. The captors wanted to take the country's president, but he cancelled at the last minute, sending the vice president in his place. The entertainment is provided by a noted opera singer. It's an interesting look at
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the bonds between kidnappers and their hostages. The novel is almost poetic in places. The book started a bit slowly for me, probably because so many characters were introduced in such a short time, but as the novel progressed, I could not put it down. It is well-deserving of the Orange Prize it earned.
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LibraryThing member ccookie
This review contains SPOILERS:

I loved this book! I enjoyed the way that Patchett slowly and carefully developed the characters. It was totally believable. I came to respect and care for the terrorists, especially the youngest ones and the girls, and I so wanted them to get out of this situation
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safely. But, of course, I knew that would not / could not happen. As I was nearing the end of the book, I was afraid to turn the page because I knew it was coming. My heart was at the back of my throat and, yet, I was just as surprised as the hostages were. And I was very saddened at the death of Mr. H. and Carmen but realize that it was the only resolution to their situation. Had they lived they would have been separated from the love of their life forever. Gen would have had to go back to Japan and leave Carmen behind in jail or executed perhaps and Mr. H. would have gone back to his wife and his life in big business in Japan. This way they die at the height of their happiness.

However, that still leaves Gen and Roxanne. I did not buy them getting married. It doesn't ring true for me. But, I guess, from the perspective of living through such a crisis and both losing their lovers, they could relate to one another in a way that no one else could. I am unclear as to how long after their release from captivity their wedding took place, but it just didn't seem to me to be realistic.

Still, a great read! 4.5 stars
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Bel Canto is a beautifully written book. Patchett has a way with language that enables her to evoke a character in just one well-chosen line or to re-create the experience of listening to a captivating aria. This novel made me want to learn how to appreciate opera (and Patchett provides a handy
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guide to doing just that at the end).

Unfortunately, I need more than beautiful writing to get lost in a story, and Patchett didn’t provide that. This novel tells the story of a kidnapping gone awry in an unnamed Latin American country. A guerilla group storms the Vice President’s house where a birthday party for a visiting Japanese dignitary is taking place. Not finding the President there as expected, the guerillas take the whole party hostage, including a world-famous opera singer.

The opening is exciting and suspenseful, but as the story settles down, I found myself questioning the situation. Held captive for months, none of the hostages try or even discuss escaping, although they outnumber the solders, who have let their guard down. And even though these hostages include an American celebrity and several important foreign businessmen and government officials, we’re supposed to believe that no one’s home country insists on a rescue attempt or even more arm-twisting in the negotiations. Finally, the ending is too pat, too well-choreographed and too predictable-yet with a completely left-of-center epilogue-for me to accept. So while this may be a beautifully written book, it didn’t quite succeed as a good story.
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LibraryThing member amydross
Enjoyed this way way more than I was expecting to. There was nothing really flashy about it -- no "pomo" trickery or stuff to make you reconsider the definition of the novel -- just good, solid story telling and characters I cared about. Although I loved the way the whole story worked as a
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carefully modulated argument about the universally transcendent nature of opera, ultimately I couldn't buy it. Patchett stacks the deck with a book full of people who cannot help but be moved in beautiful music -- in my experience, plenty of people are perfectly indifferent to the pleasures of opera. Still, it was nice to live in her world for a while!
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LibraryThing member KRaySaulis
As I turned the last page of this book I let out a huge exhale which was followed by my girlfriend whining because I woke her up (it was midnight, I hadn't put the book down in hours). I think I held my breath for the last ten pages of the book.

I fell in love with every character. I fell in love
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with the writing. I fell in love with the unique and odd plotline.

I hate to give away spoilers so I can't write more, but yes... read this book. Everyone.
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LibraryThing member Romonko
This book is very hard to categorize. It is a mix of novel, love story, mystery and thriller and it does it so seamlessly. The book is set in South America and in modern times. A birthday party is being held in the palatial home of the Vice President of the country for a wealthy Japanese
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businessman. The businessman is a lover of opera and his favourite soprano is hired to sing for the occasion of his birthday. All seems so idyllic and then a number of soldiers crash the party and take everyone hostage. The book goes from this pandemonium to an almost idyllic peacefulness during the lengthy hostage taking (about 4 and 1/2 months). Love blossoms in unlikely quarters during the hostage taking and the soldiers and the hostage takers start to become very close friends. But always there is danger lurking in the background which the reader knows is going to break out with disastrous consequences. This book casts such a spell that it's hard to get out of your mind when you lay the book down. I really can't categorize the book. All I know is that I enjoyed it immensely.
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LibraryThing member the_awesome_opossum
A group of high-powered businesspeople and politicians from around the world are held hostage by political terrorists in a mansion in a South American jungle. There's a perfectly accurate summary that completely misses what Bel Canto is *about.*

The reader grows to know and love Bel Canto's cast of
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characters - both the hostages and the terrorists. Unlikely relationships are formed, and their hostage situation grows into an odd sort of domestic community.

At the beginning of the book, I thought that Ann Patchett was going to make some socio-political point by turning the mansion into a microcosm - a bunch of different nationalities have come together, communication is difficult because of language barriers - but as the book goes on, it becomes clear that the characters aren't their nationality or any other archetype, they're all just people. Perhaps that's the point

It's been awhile since I was so invested in characters and the entire world which Patchett creates - I wanted so badly, as I neared the final few pages, for everything just to turn out okay and everyone to be safe and happy. Great, well-written, compelling book that ought to have been longe
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LibraryThing member karieh
Oh - this book! This wonderful, amazing, lyrical, gut and heart-wrenching book. This was the first book I read by the incredibly talented Ms. Patchett - and upon finishing it - I promptly went about buying everything else she's written. The characters are so beautifully drawn, the language is so
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evocative, the feelings behind the words are so intense... I just loved this book and was so sad that I eventually had to finish it.
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LibraryThing member JeffV
An un-named, poor South American country plots to improve their fortune by hosting a birthday party for a prominent Japanese businessman featuring a performance by his favorite soprano. The party is attended by diplomats, politicians, and even some curious representatives from Russia who wriggled
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an invite by suggesting they too might be interested in setting up manufacturing in this country. The president of the country is typically adamant about keeping his nights reality, he is addicted to a soap opera and doesn't like anything to interfere with his TV viewing. He agrees to attend this gala, but then backs out at the last second.

The terrorists didn't get the memo.

The mansion where the party is taken place is overwhelmed with a paramilitary group pouring in through the windows and duct work, immediately seizing control. Their goal was to snatch the president and be gone within minutes, holding him ransom until political prisoners have been released. The search for El Presidente is fruitless, though, and the terrorists are unable to decide how they will make use of the altered circumstance. Soon, it becomes a moot point when the mansion is surrounded by police and a long siege ensues.

Bel Canto is the story of several principle characters caught in the nearly 5 month ordeal. Love stories break out not only among the captives, but between a captive and a young lady that is one of two women among the terrorists. Meanwhile, another of the young terrorists is discovered to have an incredible singing voice, and the soprano begins teaching him proper singing techniques. The translator, the only person able to communicate with everyone in the mansion, falls for one of the young women terrorists and endeavors to teach her reading and writing. It's a case of everyone making the best of a bad situation, there is very little malice between hostages and captors.

Patchett's prose is somewhat on the flowery side, her terrorists could never be convincingly terrifying. That's not to say it was lacking was hinted early that everything would end badly for many of the characters (and all of the terrorists). Pratchett then built them up so the reader felt somewhat sympathetic toward them, and then with relish, throws in an ending worthy of Korean cinema.
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