Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Bel Canto

Copyright © 2011, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

Ann Patchett's award-winning novel Bel Canto takes place in a Latin American nation, where attendees at a birthday party in the Vice President's mansion find themselves taken hostage by a rebel force.  The rebels plan to kidnap the President.  But he canceled his attendance at the last minute to stay home and watch his favorite TV soap opera.  The rebels aren't sure what to do, so they hold onto the most prominent men and the one woman at the party who matters: opera singer Roxane Coss, who was the party's entertainment.  Weeks go by.  Negotiations are stalled.  The rebels' strict regimen toward the hostages slackens, and life inside the mansion becomes a small, insular world of its own as hostages and some of the younger rebels bond.  Roxane Coss, deciding she must sing to keep her voice strong, practices her opera daily - delighting rebels and hostages alike.  Life outside the compound is nearly forgotten.  The standoff will never end, they think, so this is all there is.

The entire story takes place in the mansion.  As the story goes on, we see numerous characters contribute their own skills to the smooth operation of their new world.  A pianist.  A cook.  A translator.  The Vice President, who essentially becomes the housekeeper.  Many of the young rebels, who have lived only in the backwoods, learn about society and luxury they've never imagined before, such as watching TV for the first time.   One character, a multilingual Japanese translator named Gen, falls in love with Carmen, one of the young rebels.

Patchett does a masterful job of developing each character without dumping loads of backstory on the reader.  The reader feels sympathy for a General with the disease shingles, which causes an ugly, painful rash on his face. Or Cesar, who learns he can sing opera beautifully.  Or Carmen, who helps Roxane Coss arrange an amorous tryst with a Japanese businessman.  The reader begins to live vicariously in the little false world of the hostages, which is bound to come to a tragic end.

Patchett's language is lyrical, the descriptions rich and humorous at times.  She does not stick to any one character's point-of-view, but rather lets it flow from one person to the next, paragraph by paragraph - and makes it work.

If you long for a novel that explores complex situational character relationships, Bel Canto is worth your time.

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