Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

People have been recommending this book to me for the last three years and I have been completely resistant to its charms, mostly because of how it has been described to me – something along the lines of “it’s about a hostage situation, but also about opera.” Bo-ring. Or so I thought.

After having any book recommended to me often enough, I’ll eventually try it, which is how I wound up with a copy of Bel Canto on my nightstand, waiting to be read. The story is loosely based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis that occurred in Lima, Peru in 1996 when the terrorist group the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement took hundreds of government officials hostage, some for as long as 126 days. In Patchett’s fictionalized retelling, a Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, visits an undisclosed location in South America for a party honoring his birthday. Although invited in the hopes that he would bring business to the area, Hosokawa’s sole reason for attending is the evening’s entertainment – opera singer Roxane Coss. An avid opera-goer, Hosokawa is enchanted by her voice and jumps at the chance for a semi-private performance.

As Roxane and her accompanist finish their recital, armed terrorists descend upon the party in an attempt to make demands of the President, who was presumed to be in attendance (though was in fact at home, watching his soap opera.) What follows is the story of a group of disparate people from different cultures, speaking different languages, and how they help each other survive, hostages and terrorists alike. Some people might say that music becomes the common language for the characters in this book, but I don’t really think that’s true – it gives people something to do with their days, and something to occupy their minds, but the common language is perhaps time; how much of it they have left, and how to best spend what they do have.

The narrative weaves together different characters’ stories and shows how they build a life together over the several months that the hostage situation lasts. The book ends in much the same way that the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis did (so, sorry if I just ruined it for you) and a brief epilogue gives the reader a glimpse into what life after the event looks like for two couples.

This was my first Ann Patchett novel, and I’ll definitely come back for more.

For another perspective on this book, take a look at Brandy H.’s review of it on our blog two years ago.

Find and reserve this book in our catalog.

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