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 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 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 Eurydice
Creative, luminous, and peppered with moments of transcendence, Bel Canto still fails to utterly convince.
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 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 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 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 LaineyMac
This was the first Ann Patchett book I read and I was hooked from the first page. The plot, which traps disparate people together during a hostage crisis, is so much more than it sounds. This book is about the power of love and how that love can be expressed in music, which transcends all language
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barriers. The characters are wonderfully three dimensional. There is so much food for thought here and great ideas to discuss. I recommended it for my book club and everyone loved it.
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LibraryThing member apartmentcarpet
A diverse, international group of the rich and powerful gather at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country to hear a famous opera singer. They are all taken hostage by a group of terrorists. The stand off lasts much longer than anyone anticipates and a new, temporary kind
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of normal is created in the house. I found the story very quick-paced considering that the action mostly comes to a stand-still after the first day. There is a sly, ironic humor just under the surface that keeps the story from becoming tedious. The highest praise that I can give this book is that I didn't want it to end.
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LibraryThing member jrapala
I've long been on the hunt for a piece of literature that involves a hostage situation where hostages develop Stockholm Syndrome (and likewise, abductors developing Lima Syndrome). This being the subject of a novel I've been trying to write, I'm in the need of a little help to make the situation
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seem convincing. After much searching, I came across this novel, which details the happenings of situation where a terrorist group takes hostage the guests of a lavish party for the politically elite. Bel Canto is Ann Patchett's loose interpretation of the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1996.

Despite being a novel that fit my very specific requirements, it took some coaxing to actually start reading it. Political fiction is not exactly my cup of tea. The opera theme seemed odd at best. However, I gave it a shot.

Ann Patchett is a master at creating a dream-like environment and can hold your attention over hundreds of pages where little seems to happen. The relationships that developed between the characters were convincing, especially between the hostages and their captors. She supports the opinion that love can develop anywhere and in the unlikeliest of situations--despite age, race, and language differences..and even if the person is holding a gun to your head. Love is described as wanting the best for someone and helping them to achieve their goals. The scenes of a hostage teaching a terrorist to read show love at it's most genuine moments. I thank Ann for neglecting to include any explicit moments as it would have destroyed the poetic nature of the book. I'm sure many would be utterly bored to tears by the lack of action in this read, but it's what makes these relationships seem so real. Some of the greatest moments of love are simply co-existing with another person in a moment in time.

I'd also like to thank Ann for promoting human potential and the validity of each and every human being. Every person, hostage and terrorist alike, is capable of doing something wonderful. Ann shows how everyone has his or her own story and how one should never convince themselves that someone else is not worth their time. Being locked up with strangers for weeks or months at a time can be the best thing that can happen to someone. I've experienced something similar with touring (insert all your jokes about touring life here. Side note--the funniest portrayal of touring life that I've heard was someone likening it to boat life on "The Deadliest Catch." An over-the-top comparison, but you can't exactly argue against it). The situation is life changing and it's often painful to leave it, much like how the hostages refused to imagine life outside their "prison."

Only thing keeping me from giving this book 5 stars is it's ending. I agree with most reviewers in saying that it seemed rushed and tacked-on. However Ann put herself into a difficult situation in writing this novel. It's not an easy story to end. I myself would not have done a better job.
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LibraryThing member DanTarlin
Beautiful story of a black tie party in a fictional South American country that is set upon by terrorists planning to kidnap the president. Unfortunately for the rebels, the president isn't there and they settle in with a bunch of hostages, hoping to get something for their troubles. It revolves
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around a famous opera singer who is performing at the party and the civilizing power of music.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Roxanne Cosse is a brilliant American opera singer, known throughout the world for her unparalleled arias. An unnamed South American president arranges for Ms. Cosse to perform at a private birthday party for a Japanese businessman with whom the president wishes to seal a deal. Mr. Hosokawa is
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hardworking and conscientious, with a single interest outside of his work--opera, and he agrees to attend the embassy party, despite knowing that he has no interest in the proposed deal. At the last moment, the president is unable to come, and the vice-president, Reuben Iglesias, is left as the fussy and gracious host at the embassy, which is also his home. Suddenly at the very end of the performance, the lights go out, and eighteen terrorists break into the embassy through the air ducts, hoping to kidnap the president. But the president isn't there.

The plot, which is loosely based on the Lima Crisis of 1996, is engaging, but it is the characters and the relationships that form between them that are the heart of the book. The characters are wonderful, and my favorite is Mr. Hosokawa's translator, Gen Watanabe. Gen is a genius at languages and speaks all the ones represented by the hostages and hostage-takers, making him indispensable to everyone. Quiet, intelligent, and loyal to Mr. Hosokawa, Gen is the facilitator of negotiations and of the relationships developing between hostages, and between the hostages and their captors. The book is not a treatise on the Stockholm Syndrome or any other psychological study. Instead it is about a microcosm of people from different cultures and class, who are forced to interact in ways that would never have happened in the everyday world. The result is a beautifully written tale of fear, love, loss, and acceptance.
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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 carport
Despite a predictable (and dreaded) ending, Bel Canto's characters engaged me, and continue to be hauntingly memorable.
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
In the home of the vice president of a South American country, a birthday party is being held for a Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, a world-famous opera star and her piano accompanist are performing at this fete. During the evening, a band of terrorists break into the home, and
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the leaders make various and changing demands in exchange for freeing the multinational hostages. Not much progress is made in the negotiations, but the hostages and terrorists, in the meantime, begin to develop relationships amongst themselves.

This book is long and boring. Near the end of the book, there is an occasional funny scene which perks up the action. I never got deeply enough involved with any of the characters to make their changing relationships interesting to me. The occasional snippets of humor and the hope that hostage situation (and the book) would soon end helped carry me through the finish, albeit with a bit of difficulty.
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LibraryThing member Bookmarque
I’ve been aware of Bel Canto for over a decade since it is an award-winning novel, but until a copy came my way I wasn’t tempted by it. It’s probably because of the mixed reviews it gets and the fact that I like grit and action in my books. Well, generally anyway. Lately though I’ve been
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reading quieter books. Books that focus on writing and expression more than plot. Bel Canto certainly falls into that category. The way the novel is constructed and the emotions conveyed not only by what the characters do, think, feel and say, but by the intense level of tedium due to the lack of action. That is not a negative, btw. I feel that the author deliberately kept the action to a minimum in order to help us feel the same boredom and constraint that the hostages must have felt. The story lives between the characters and their limited purviews; it forces interactions that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place. It forces them to reevaluate their lives and how they relate to other people and because they’re captives many of them find a source of bravery and step outside their comfortable versions of themselves and become new people. Most of them find happiness for the first time and it is a thing of beauty to witness. The prison becomes a utopia. For a while.

I was surprised by the writing, too. In some ways it was very clinical and unembellished. Understated and almost dispassionate, but not entirely. The situation sometimes calls for overblown sentiment and Patchett doesn’t shy away from it. Also there’s an underlying sense of humor that I quite liked. It kept everything from being too self-important. Here’s an example of how brilliantly precise her prose is -

“The room had the same effect on the spectators as long liturgical services, algebra lectures, Halcion.”

If you’re in the mood for an introspective book that is character driven, you could do a lot worse than Bel Canto. I have other Patchett books and I look forward to reading them.
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LibraryThing member John
Bel Canto, published in 2001, won the Orange Prize, the Pen/Faulkner Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. I can only assume that this reflects a paucity of competition at the period. I found the novel a pleasant, easy read, but as I reflected on it afterwards, I
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liked it less and less. The premise is straightforward: the Vice-President of a backward, repressive regime in some unnamed South American country hosts a dinner party for an important Japanese businessman as part of a campaign to get that businessman to invest in the country. The lure to the party is a famous opera diva whom the Japanese fellow (a true afficionado of opera) has worshiped from afar for many years. The President of the country is supposed to be at the glittering party, but he backs out at the last minute. Unfortunately, the guerrilla band intent on capturing the President is not privy to his social calendar and is a bit miffed to find, after they storm the house and take it over, that their prey is no where on the premises. So far, so good, but from here the novel heads south.

The book blurbs on the cover refer to Bel Canto as "the most romantic novel in years", and claim that it invokes the, "glorious, unreliable, promises of art, politics and love." It did none of these for me. What it did do was offer up a scenario that strains credulity (would any government really allow the standoff to continue for months?) and provides a pastiche of stereotypes: the Japanese are inscrutable, except that the one is an opera buff (he and the diva fall in love), and his vice-president (surprise, surprise) turns out to be a concert-level pianist just when we need one because the original guy popped off; the Russians are loud, boisterous and full of expansive, unrequited love (for the diva); the only one of the hostages who can cook is a Frenchman; the negotiator/interlocutor if a phlegmatic Swiss who yearns for the anonymous conformity of his homeland; and the guerillas: for the most part they are illiterate, unsophisticated, uneducated teenagers and 20-year olds, recruited from jungle villages, but lo, one has a world-class opera voice that with a little training (which the diva is pleased to arrange) can take the world by storm; another learns to play more than passable chess just by watching games and moves; a third proves to be a linguistic polyglot who soaks up learning like a sponge and is much more impressive than any university student the teacher had ever dealt with; and a fourth is just such a warm sensitive person who likes to help and the Vice President wants to adopt him when the hostage-taking is all over. And the generals: after their daring and successful raid of the house, they basically down tools and give no thought as to where they are going with the whole situation and what is even remotely possible in the circumstances. Of course, we know that it will all end badly, especially for the guerillas, and these rays of hope will be snuffed out by the military commandos who shoot first and don't bother asking questions at all. The ending is also lame; an awkward attempt to pull some of the pieces together. One can see the author's attempt to play with the redemptive power of love and music and getting a perspective on life that does not put the office or corporation first, and the writing is easy to read, but the other aspects of the novel undermine its durability for me.
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0060188731 / 9780060188733
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