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:
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