Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto
Ann Patchett

Here’s a perfect example of a book that is great to re-read. I remember loving Bel Canto the first time I read it so on a recent trip to the beach and with the need to grab something quick, I chose Bel Canto from my shelf. Published in 2001, it begins with a lavish birthday party held at the home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa, chairman of the largest electronics firm in Japan, is the guest of honor and the hosts hope to convince him to build a plant in their country.

Mr. Hosokawa is a passionate opera lover and the only reason he’s there is because Roxanne Coss, the beautiful and most talented opera singer in the world, has agreed to perform.

Everything goes wrong just after she performs. Terrorists invade the home in order to kidnap the country’s president. When they discover the president is not there, the three generals and fifteen young soldiers have to decide what to do about the nearly two hundred guests who are now hostages.

After the initial release of all the staff, women and children, except Roxanne Coss, the group of hostages has been reduced to forty. In a fascinating stand-off between the terrorists and the country’s government, days become weeks and then extend to months, during which the generals, their soldiers and the hostages undergo remarkable transformations. Days revolve around the hostages’ infatuation with Miss Coss, her music, and her daily practice sessions. Another central figure is Mr. Hosokawa’s personal translator, Gen Watanabe, who takes on the all-consuming task of interpreting negotiations and helping the international guests communicate with each other. Other important characters include Joachim Messner a negotiator from the International Red Cross, whose patience is tried as talks drag on, Vice President Ruben Iglesias, who assumes a completely different role in his own home, and of course, Mr. Hosakowa, who didn’t want to attend the party, but may have found happiness as a hostage. There are many other great characters, including the generals and their soldiers and Patchett shows their personalities and human sides to give the reader an understanding of their lives and their cause. These and other surprises are best for the reader to discover first-hand.

The group settles into a new and comfortable routine. Life is pretty good at the vice president’s home and many are in no hurry for the conflict to be resolved. In addition, hostages and their captors begin to form tentative friendships, blurring the lines between them. They may be in denial, but Messner and the reader know that this can’t go on forever.

I enjoyed Bel Canto just as much the second time around and recommend it to readers who enjoy stories about how people change under constrained and dangerous circumstances. Heroes emerge and others look deep inside themselves. And many discover (ironically) the freedom to redefine themselves during their captivity.

Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors. You can check out my reviews of some of her other books here:

The Dutch House
State of Wonder

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!


36 thoughts on “Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

    1. Hi Cathy – I like her writing very much. Thanks for visiting – I hope you are doing well and will be by for a visit soon. Behind on the blog visits again!

  1. Here a surprising contradiction for you, Barbara. I like Ann Patchett’s writing in general and years ago read Happy Marriage and The Getaway Car (on writing), but I didn’t enjoy Bel Canto, and now I don’t know why…maybe the topic.

    1. Hi Marian – I haven’t read either of those. Is Happy Marriage nonfiction? I loved Commonwealth and The Dutch House too. State of Wonder I liked but not quite as much. Every one of her books is a completely different topic so your comment makes sense – Bel Canto’s topic just didn’t appeal to you. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been away from the blog for a week or so but I have some posts of yours saved to look at this weekend!

  2. I’ve read a couple of Ann Patchett’s books, but not this one. Thanks for the great review, Barbara. I read it, even though you were supposed to take me to the beach…not a book! 🙂 I hope you had a great time.

    1. Hi Jill – we would have had fun together gabbing on the beach for sure! It was a good day, pretty hot though…but not as hot as it was at home! Thanks for the visit 🙂

  3. Great outline of the book, Barb. It makes me want to read it (for the first time). I rarely read books twice, because they never seem as good the second time around. I’m glad this was an exception!

    1. Hi Diana – some books I only want to read once, but when I do re-read a book, I’m surprised at the new things I discover. Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      1. I can see wanting to reread a book from a different angle. To study the craft of beautiful writing or how the author was able to twist me around her finger. I can even think of a few that I might enjoy. But there are so many books I haven’t read! I need a clone!

    1. Hi Alethea – I’ve heard others say the same about her books. So many authors out there – somthing for everyone! Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you are healthy and doing well. 🙂

    1. Hi JT – I understand. I don’t think it’s realistic – the story takes on a certain fantasy mood as the characters change. It’s a feel-good book, although not all of it is – there is some harsh reality too. Maybe it’s because both the terrorists and the hostages were in the house for so long, they lost their sense of reality. Thank you for stopping by!

    1. Hi Kay – thank you for stopping by! I’ve read 4 of her books and I can’t decide which I like best. I think the next one I read will be The Magician’s Assistant. Have you read that?

  4. Bel Canto was the first of Ann Patchett’s books that I ‘read’ by audiobook earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed it even though some parts broke my heart. I was interested to watch the movie to see what they did with it, and got to do so last night. They did keep pretty well to the book but it just wasn’t the same. I should have known I would be disappointed. The book always wins!

    1. Hi Norah, I didn’t realize until last week that there was a movie too. I’d be interested to watch it, despite it being disappointing. That’s almost always the case, isn’t it? Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you are doing well.

    1. Hi Lauren, thanks for stopping by. I really love Ann Patchett. I hope you like Bel Canto when you get to read it. Hope you are doing well. 🙂

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