Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

Over the years I have heard great things about Bel Canto from friends and strangers alike, so I had high expectations.  In the end, although I enjoyed the book, I did not love it as much as others seem to.  The plot revolves around a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country.  Leaders of the South American country hope to entice a Japanese company into building a factory in their country and so they invite the company's CEO to visit their country by throwing him a birthday party where his favorite opera singer will perform.  Other international guests also attend the dinner hoping to get in on the ground floor should a factory indeed be built.  Just after Ross finishes her last song, the lights go out and terrorists break in.  This all happens in the first few pages.  Over the next four-and-a-half months and the next three hundred plus pages, hostages and kidnappers live together in the house as the kidnappers make demands no government would ever meet.  Luckily there is one man who is fluent in multiple languages and therefore hostages (who come from around the world) and kidnappers are able to communicate.

Patchett's writing is beautiful.  As I read her words I kept wondering she ever wrote poetry because the writing in Bel Canto was so lyrical and melodic.  However, although I enjoyed the sentences about fifty pages in I was anxious to get to the end.  It felt like things were dragging on, that time was moving too slow, but then maybe that's how real hostages in a situation like this might feel.  Over time the hostages and kidnappers form relationships.  Everyone relaxes into a sort of routine, and again, maybe that's what it takes to survive in a situation like this.  Still it felt too romanticized.  There seemed to be to little fear on the part of the hostages.  Although Patchett did not paint the kidnappers as pure evil and was fairly non-judgmental and evenhanded in painting portraits of the hostages and kidnappers as a whole, I never once forget that the kidnappers, even though some were mere teenagers, were terrorists holding a house full of people hostage, and found it somewhat incredible that any of the hostages could ever forget that.  The parts that seemed most real was when various  hostages questioned their lives and decisions as evaluating one's life does seem like a realistic thing a person might do when faced with death. 

The ending seemed fitting (and early on it is more or less made clear how things will end, how these situations usually end).  And then came an epilogue which came out of nowhere and made little sense to me.  Overall, I liked the writing (except the epilogue) even if I didn't fully buy into the story.

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