Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett


Four stars, read in August 2011.

Somewhere in South America at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening–until a band of terrorists breaks in, taking the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different 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.

Oh, this is a wonderful book. It gets away with things that in another story, written by someone else, I might have hated; in other circumstances, would have thought pretentious or just trying too hard. A few times I thought she was overdoing the opera thing, the intensity of the music and its power over the listeners. But each time, I paused to think about it, then realized how apt it probably was. And I will tell you three things this book made me desperately want to do: listen to opera, sing, and play the piano again.

This is a story of every kind of love and fear and learning who you are, what you’re capable of. It’s a story of the human need for connection, and the emotions and desires that even people who are completely different share. It’s also a story of music, which is really the same thing I just said, because music is possibly the single clearest, deepest way in which human emotions are both felt and communicated.

That “moment of great beauty” is what all but a few pages of this book are about, and it isn’t only the characters who get swept up in it. As you read, you, too, will forget about that danger that’s been waiting outside. But it’s still there.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. svetasbooks says:

    Have plans to read it


    1. Gwen says:

      I read a review of this that was frustrated with the way it uses Peruvian history while completely ignoring Peru itself—which is not something I noticed at the time, but I do think it would bother me at least a little if I read it again. The reviewer said that if she had just let Patchett guide her mental image of the place, she would have pictured the Von Trapp house stuck in the middle of the jungle, and that is exactly how I did picture it. A lot of people seem to have trouble with the importance of opera, too, because opera is really a pretty niche art form—but I think that may also be a failure of imagination on the part of people who (understandably) have never been in a similarly tense situation. I think any kind of music could become significant under those circumstances, even to people who don’t really like it. ANYWAY—you’ll have to write a review when you do read it, I’ll be interested to see how it strikes you!


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