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Review of Bel Canto by

Bel Canto

by Ann Patchett

5 out of 5 stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Reviewed .

Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.

One of my favourite shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I could get into why, but then we’d be here all day). One of the villains in the second season is a vampire named Spike. He’s a cold and ruthless antagonist, but then in season four he gets metaphorically declawed. With a chip in his head that causes him intense pain if he harms humans, Spike is neutralized as a threat. He spends a good deal of that season tied up in Xander’s basement. It becomes a running joke, in fact, how harmless he is, and gradually Spike transforms from villain to non-entity to ally. It’s one of the many subtle, long-term arcs that contribute to Buffy’s greatness.

The hostage situation in Bel Canto reminds me of this subtle transformation. It lasts a matter of months, but in those months Ann Patchett manages to make one care about a dizzying array of characters, hostages and terrorists alike. This is a beautiful book. The prose is lyrical without feeling like it’s overdone. At first the emphasis on description over dialogue annoyed me, but I gradually allowed myself to become seduced by the way Patchett would dip in and out of each character’s thoughts, sharing along the way some of their background story.

The multiplicity of these stories is key to Bel Canto and its ensemble cast. Although Patchett focuses on a small core of characters, even her most minor characters have a detailed, comprehensive backstory that provides their motivation. None of Patchett’s characters are stock, because she can always justify who they are. Normally this would be overwhelming, but the timeless, ambling quality of the narrative allow Patchett this type of freedom in her characterization.

See, Bel Canto exists in that fringe space of absurd that straddles reality and fiction. On the one hand, it seems so implausible that a group of terrorists this incompetent could show up at a party to kidnap a president who isn’t there and wind up babysitting hostages for four months. On the other hand, situations this long have happened before. In this case, however, the combination of the terrorists’ abject failure to get what they want and the duration of the standoff contributes to a kind of mutual Stockholm syndrome. While the distinction between terrorist and hostage never disappears, the barriers to civility do, and gradually the Vice President’s house becomes a kind of community of unhappy circumstance.

It’s a bit like a lab experiment. Patchett puts these people under the microscope in a controlled environment and watches them react. Because all of the characters have different ways of coping with their isolation, with the separation from their loved ones, with the sense of dread accompanying the knowledge that this can’t go on forever. Indeed, like many once-in-a-lifetime events, the standoff is a cathartic and life-changing experience for those involved. Mr. Hosokawa enters the house as a lover of opera—it is his passion to the exclusion of almost all other pleasures, including those of his family, who perplex and bewilder him more than they do provide warmth and companionship. Gen enters as an employee of Mr. Hosokawa, nothing more, but he gradually discovers within himself a capacity and ambition he had not recognized before. Vice President Iglesias undergoes perhaps one of the more interesting transformations, for he decides his role as host continues and begins obsessively tidying the house and cleaning up after people. In a situation where he is powerless to change their circumstances, he seizes upon what little power he has to make things better.

Strangely enough, however, Patchett captures the nature of this transformation best when describing a fairly minor character. Tetsuya Kato is one of Mr. Hosokowa’s corporate vice presidents and accompanied him to the party. When Roxanne Coss decides she must begin practising again, we learn that Kato can play the piano—he can, in fact, play it beautifully. At first this revelation is a convenient plot point and emphasizes one of the book’s themes, which is that people are full of surprises and have all these hidden talents we don’t know about because we don’t necessarily ask. But there’s something deeper going on here, and I’ll quote from the only paragraph I bothered sticky-noting in this book:

They spoke to one another by handing leaves of music back and forth. While their relationship was by no means a democracy, Kato, who read the music the priest’s friend had sent while lying on the pile of coats he slept on at night, would sometimes pick out pieces he wanted to hear or pieces that he felt would be well suited to Roxanne’s voice. He made what he felt to be wild presumptions in handing over his suggestions, but what did it matter? He was a vice president in a giant corporation, a numbers man, suddenly elevated to be the accompanist. He was not himself. He was no one he had ever imagined.

That last line really resonates with me. Hosokawa, Gen, Iglesias, Kato … the hostage situation prompts a profound crisis of identity in these people, and they find themselves not just stepping from their comfort zone but leaving it behind entirely. But Patchett makes it happen so fluidly and so beautifully that it feels natural.

I’m not a fan of opera. It’s not that I dislike opera; I just haven’t listened to it that much. I have enough trouble deciphering song lyrics I know are in English…. Anyway. I know for some people, Patchett’s decision to use opera as a metaphorical way to unify the story detracted from their enjoyment of it. Fair enough. However, Patchett is doing more than talking about opera. That’s how it starts, but pretty soon the metaphor extends into music in general. Patchett reifies the spiritual reverence we as humans accord to the experience of music. When Roxanne sings, she literally stops the terrorists in their tracks, momentarily making them hostages to her voice. I may not have listened to much opera, but I understand the power of the human voice. It’s in the orator whose speech sways the crowds not just because of the words but the way they’re spoken. I love just sitting in my reading chair late at night, a cup of tea by my side, with the haunting vocals of someone like Florence + The Machine as company. In a medium with no sound, Patchett harnesses something primal about our sense of hearing and asks one to listen.

In case it’s not clear, I’ve fallen for Bel Canto. It’s beautiful as a work of literature. It’s beautiful as a reading experience. I’ve fallen for it so hard that it’s difficult for me to evaluate it critically, because honestly, I just want to close my eyes and bask in Patchett’s luxurious narration of everyone’s thoughts and desires.

And then there’s the ending.

It’s not a stretch to say I felt betrayed by the ending, at least in the first few seconds of seeing the scene play out on the page. To be fair, Patchett foreshadows the hell out of this thing, reminding us that despite what some of the characters might hope, nothing can last forever. Except that, thanks to the way Patchett writes, this situation seems like it could defy such a truism. The story has a quality of timelessness to it. Yet something, as they say, has to give. I understand that, but I was so invested in these characters that I wanted them to get out alive. Not all of them, mind you—I didn’t care what happened to the Generals, not even Benjamin. But to see Hosokawa and Carmen brutally cut down like that … that hurt. I wanted a happy ending for Carmen and Gen so badly.

I don’t feel cheated though. As I said, the ending makes sense given the story Patchett has written. The characters who survive are changed, their paths in life altered, even warped unrecognizably by their experience. They have a new perspective on what it means to live. Fortunately, I don’t have to endure four months of being hostage for such transformation, or even a few weeks in Xander’s basement … I just have to read books like Bel Canto.


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