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Bel Canto
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394 of 425 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
"Bel Canto" is a beautifully written story of unlikely love and secret desires. Do not be put off by the barebones plot--a group of people at a party taken hostage by South American terrorists. And do not think you are in for a routine "put a bunch of strangers in a room and then learn their life stories" sort of saga. Patchett gathers together a group that spans nationalities, professions and class and reveals the hidden depths, sometimes in a few short pages, through their interactions with each other.
Take the Russian minister of commerce--portrayed as something of a buffoon who has fallen in love with Roxane, the opera singer. He screws up his courage to declare himself--which must be done through Gen, the translator. What he says to her is completely unexpected--a wonderful story of his childhood and an art book. He declares himself a man who appreciates beauty and therefore worthy to love her, and asks nothing in return. Meanwhile we see into the heart of Gen the translator, as he awkwardly acts as intermediary he realizes he has never told anyone that he loves them, not a woman, not family, not his mother--he feels as if his life has been to act as a conduit for the thoughts and feelings of others, that he has never experienced a real life of his own. Then there is the relationship of Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane, who do not share a common language. Is it possible to love a person to whom you cannot speak?
I loved the transformation of the characters that occurs--the Vice President of the country dreams of adopting one of the young terrorists and becoming a gardener, another terrorist uncovers his great gift as a singer, a buttoned up Japanese businessman becomes Roxane's accompianist, the young priest becomes a gifted and courageous spiritual counselor. The Generals become human too, worrying about their young soldiers as a close relative might worry about a child, and regretting recruiting them for this operation that has gone terribly wrong.
Like the hostages themselves, we get lulled by the harmony and unreality of life within the compound, yet as time passes Patchett delicately conveys a sense of impending doom through the Swiss Red Cross mediator, who himself longs to become a hostage after seeing the community that has been created within the walls of the Vice President's house. Patchett tells us at the beginning of the story what the end will be, and yet creates an aura of suspense as we realize that dreams of the future will never be fulfilled.
There is a surprise ending here that I wasn't sure rang true, but the book stands without it--a wonderful novel!
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175 of 193 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In this PEN/Faulker award winning novel, Ann Patchett has created an intriguing and poetic tale based (loosely) on a real hostage taking episode that occurred in Peru in April 1997. *Bel Canto* succeeds in revealing the common humanity that persists behind the oppositional roles and stances shaped by social and political structures beyond our individual control. In these times of wars on terrorism and terrorist wars, this story emphasizes that even the most superficially frightening political fanatics ultimately are human beings with personalities, hopes, dreams, and reasons why, and for that reason alone the novel is well worth reading.
In terms of style and texture, Patchett has endeavored to compose a work that is lyrical and "magical," and she largely succeeds in creating an ethereal, dreamlike mood throughout. As such, however, the degree to which readers ultimately will embrace the novel depends upon their willingness to engage in a "willing suspension of disbelief." Those possessed of any significant degree of skepticism regarding the actual nature of political struggle, small group social psychology, and human behavior generally will find much about which to be dubious, beginning with the notion that ALL of the guerrillas would be mesmerized by Roxanne Coss' operatic singing. They also will look askance at the romantic interludes portrayed here, including the prospect of romance between a superstar American singer and a staid Japanese businessman. Furthermore, the lack of substantive political content is striking and to me, disappointing. It would seem that a lengthy confrontation between desperate rural guerrillas and cosmopolitan luminaries would reveal more insights regarding the social and economic bases for radical grassroots rebellion (and ruling class repression) than Patchett offers here. I must also join the chorus of voices rising in protest against the tacked-on ending, which is just plain horrible.
Despite these flaws, this book is a well-crafted and thoughtful work that once started is hard to put down.
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
"Bel Canto" is a style of operatic singing characterized by full, even tones and a brilliant display of vocal technique. It is also a whimsical and entertaining novel by Ann Patchett. The book takes place in an unnamed country in South America. A birthday party has been arranged for a prominent Japanese businessman named Mr. Hosokawa. The only reason that Mr. Hosokawa has agreed to come to this party in his honor is that Roxanne Coss, a world famous soprano, is there to sing for the assembled guests. Ms. Coss does sing brilliantly and all seems to be going well. Unfortunately, the party turns sour quickly when a band of revolutionaries breaks into the house and holds the guests hostage.

Patchett, in a display of literary virtuosity, brings the characters in "Bel Canto" to brilliant life. With wit, humor and pathos, the author shows how living in close quarters with strangers sometimes brings out the best in people. Mr. Hosokawa, who is usually a businesslike automaton, blossoms into a sensitive and caring individual under the influence of Roxanne and her lovely music. Gen Watanable, who is Hosokawa's translator and secretary, falls in love with one of the female revolutionaries, and his life also takes off in unexpected directions.

Patchett touches on many themes in "Bel Canto," such as the power of glorious music to touch our souls and the importance of seeking beauty and romance in our lives. Since the world we live in is sometimes a barbaric place, it is not always possible for peace and love to flourish. Therefore, Patchett seems to be saying, it is vital to seize those rare moments in our lives when we can enjoy everything that is wonderful and amazing around us. "Bel Canto" is marred by a pace that is a bit too leisurely and by a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. However, overall, it is an entertaining novel that is notable not only for the author's development of character, but also for her imagination, originality and wonderful use of language.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
If a novel is at once tremendously beautiful and amazingly flawed, how will these two characteristics be reconciled in the final evaluation of the work? Will the flaws be forgiven as minor technicalities, overwhelmed by the novel's beauty? Or are they so intrinsic to the overall work that they cannot be separated, leaving a sour taste in the reader's mouth that even tremendous beauty cannot overcome? Or perhaps they peacefully coexist, allowing the reader to separate them and evaluate them individually. Read Bel Canto, and answer for yourself.
The winner of this year's Fen/Faulker Award, Bel Canto is one of the more beautiful novels I have read in a long while. In an unnamed South American country that bears a strong resemblance to Peru, a group of terrorists sneak into the vice-president's home as he is hosting a birthday party for a Japanese businessman and take dozens of people hostage, including the world-renowned opera singer who had performed at the party. A protracted hostage situation ensues, extending over a period of several months. And during this time, bonds of friendship, trust, and love develop between terrorists and hostages. Relationships that at first glance might seem unnatural or unlikely quickly become meaningful and powerful, full of the most genuine emotion. Love and compassion gradually transcend and overwhelm the adversarial nature of the situation, powerfully reaffirming all the humanity that is common to us all. And the music provided daily by the opera singer serve as a backdrop of beauty, simplicity, and grace, a common language among people from different backgrounds and cultures. Her music brings hope and happiness, and kindles love in the most unexpected of places.
Throughout, Patchett's prose evokes a full range of emotions from the reader. Her writing sings, her sentences dance off the page with grace and beauty. But, alas, this is not a perfect novel. Some flaws are simple ones, errors that any editor should have caught, which makes them all the more inexcusable. In her attempts to sprinkle the text with bits and pieces of Spanish, Patchett unfortunately displays her lack of knowledge of the language by committing grammatical errors that even a first year Spanish student would catch. In her description of a chess game, she mistakenly refers to the horse's head of the rook. And perhaps most embarrassingly, one of her male characters is named Guadalupe, which happens to be the name of the virgin saint of Mexico - most definitely a woman's name. These errors, while egregious for a work of such enormous beauty and magnitude, could perhaps be dismissed as technical, not substantive flaws. But alas, there is a major substantive flaw as well. After writing a novel in which every turn feels so appropriate, Pratchett tacks on a three-page epilogue with a plot twist that seems so out of touch with the rest of the novel that it almost invalidates the beauty of the first 300 pages. And unfortunately, it is the ending that makes the final impression on the reader. I can only hope that it will not also be the lasting impression.
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52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2003
Format: Paperback
Upon reading the cover blurb and the glowing reviews I was looking forward to enjoying Bel Canto. I am both a music lover and an enthusiast of Latin American culture, having spent the past three years living in Bogota Colombia.
Fifty men and one woman are taken hostage in an unnamed country (a thinly disguised Peru, with elements of Colombia and Guatemala thrown in). The lone woman, Roxanne Coss, is the world's most famous opera diva. The men are rich and powerful Westerners: diplomats, barons of industry, politicians...and through some bizarre quirk of fate they all happen to be rabid opera fans. The captors are made up of fifteen armed-to-the-teeth teenagers led by three veteran guerrilla warriors.
The hostage situation (an early death, a pistol whipping) quickly devolves into some sort of egalitarian fantasia. A Japanese business executive reveals himself to be a classically trained soloist; he and Miss Coss fill the house with beautiful music. The country's vice president rolls his sleeves up and waxes the floors. A guerrilla leader plays chess with the hostages. The French diplomat doubles as a gourmet chef, and puts the knife wielding terrorists to work chopping vegetables. Even these young gun wielding teenage boys discover all sorts of latent talents: one becomes a chess master after watching a few games, and another reveals himself as the next opera great, reeling off arias in perfect Italian.
Even though her subject is a hostage situation, Anne Patchett has managed to write a novel without an ounce of tension. The situation's sorry end is so heavily foreshadowed that the conclusion creates no sense of surprise. It is almost as if Patchett willfully disregarded all of the elements that might have made Bel Canto a gripping read. The hostages are powerful men from societies as diverse as Russia, Japan, and Italy, but the sole cultural clash in the entire novel arises from a Latino hostage asking Miss Coss to help with the cooking (she politely explains that she does not know how to cook.) Even the obvious racial and class conflict is utterly avoided. By the novel's end rich hostages and poor terrorists are playing soccer in the garden and making plans for the future.
Bel Canto was a disappointment, especially given the accolades that have been heaped upon it. Patchett can write, and the novel's opening passages are smooth and captivating, but the reader is soon pulled into a syrupy soap opera full of unrealistic situations and unbelievable characters. Patchett appeared to have attempted a quirky love fable, but Bel Canto ends up as a soupy mess in which teenage guerrillas and wealthy western barons of industry all find their common humanity. I found myself waiting for Roxanne Coss to burst into an a capella version of We Are the World.
Not recommended.
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81 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on September 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
After watching this book ride the best-seller lists for a while and after reading all of the glowing reviews on the book cover, I decided to check it out. About 100 pages into the book, I kept thinking that surely something interesting was about to happen. It became real torture to continue with this book, but I hate to stop reading books once I have started and I was sure that the plot would pick up or the characters would become more interesting if I just stuck with it. Why else would the book be so popular? Unfortunately, the book did not improve. The plot just kept getting more implausible. Yeah, I am sure terrorists are beautiful, warm, and caring people if you just take the time go get to know them! Aaarrrggghhh... After forcing myself to finish the book, I found the ending to be abrupt and predictable, and the epilogue was ridiculous and unnecessary. After reading the book, I came to the Amazon web site and read the reviews (something I wish I had done before I started!). It appears that people either love or hate this book. Put me firmly in the latter camp.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2003
Format: Paperback
I had high hopes for this book based on the plethora of positive reviews and the fact that it had won several awards. Well, whoever decided that Bel Canto deserved an award or thought that it merited a rave review needs to be fired.
The idea for the story was unique and HAD potential. However, as executed by Patchett, all potential is lost.
The plot is boring, the main characters do not inspire passion or thought, and the epilogue makes no sense. In fact, the epilogue is the worst part of the book. The main character Gen does something that so out of character that it is unbelievable and none of the other characters seems to think his behavior is out of character!
Attention critics...You shouldn't give a book an award just because the IDEA behind it is good, the author needs to follow through and deliver a good book.
What a disappointment. Skip this book and read something else, anything else. Ugh.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2002
Format: Paperback
It's an implausible story (even though something similar did happen), populated with an implausible cast, but beautifully written and oddly compelling.
Every person in the book, even the hostage-takers, is portrayed as essentially good and decent. Many of them are people like you and me with no particularly discerning features, but Patchett draws attention to their most favourable sides, eg Thibault's infatuation with his wife, the considerate General Benjamin and the Vice President and his efforts to keep everybody comfortable.
Characters like the multilingual Gen are unrealistic, the relationships between him and Carmen and between Hosakawa and Roxanne Cross contrived, the resolution to the hostage crisis is somewhat abrupt and I didn't buy the epilogue at all. But despite all that, I was hooked from page one and captivated throughout the story. It's an easy read, best enjoyed with Callas singing in the background.
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51 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
presented in bright and lyrical prose. A gifted opera singer, Roxanne Coss, is hired to sing at an international get together for a Japanese businessman, in an obscure third world country. An unexpected terrorist attack leaves them hostages in the prestigious home of the vice-president. This is the premise of Ann Patchett's incredible study of human nature. Humans are basically gregarious animals and will search out comfort no matter what the situation. Add haunting music and the illustrious voice of an angel, and they all have something in common. The music flows through them, as the bonds grow between captive and captor. We can only imagine the ending to the pre-destined cataclysmic event that is bound to occur.
Patchett's writing blossoms throughout this novel filled with unusual relationships that she is able to describe so vividly. She has taken an international group of people with differing cultures and religious backgrounds, add in multiple language skills that leave the interpreter dizzy, and what do we unexpectedly arrive a.... but harmony. Something is to be said for the ability of humans to see the good in any given situation. Her development of the characters is superb leaving little to the imagination as to their joys and frustrations. I say "Bravo" for one of the best books I have read this year. Kelsana 9/6/02
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63 of 74 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I thought Bel Canto might evolve into an oppressive hostage story, but instead, it is an amazing study of human beings, their universality, and idealized love- certainly a beautiful song. The set-up one can read on the book jacket: Paraphrased, people of various nationalities attend a birthday party for a Japanese techno tycoon who was enticed to attend because his favorite Diva was entertaining. A subversive group takes the entire party hostage, since the group was stymied and disappointed that the president of the Latin nation was not there to be kidnapped and held for political ransom. From this point, the story takes on a momentum of its own, unfolds in a most unusual way, not tumbling to the conclusion, but giving the reader time to savor the moments, the characters, and the writing. I will never again look at a linguist/translator in a casual way. A very "different" novel, easy to read, yet strikingly complex, Bel Canto is strongly recommended. I did not want it to end.
Re Bel Canto , I neglected to mention a couple of important points when I reiterated my enjoyment of the characters. The characters develop unlikely relationships among themselves and between themselves and some of the terrorists, and also, the necessity to establish unconventional routines and fill the time to adapt to the circumstances presents a most intriguing scenario. Unlikely? Perhaps. But perhaps not... My favorite of the summer of 2001.
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