Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto Ann PatchettWinner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002, ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett is set during a birthday party for Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa held in his honour at the vice-president’s mansion in an unnamed South American country. While entertainment is provided by renowned American opera singer Roxane Coss, the property is suddenly stormed by terrorists who had originally planned to kidnap the president. However, in his absence, they end up holding dozens of guests under house arrest for several months. 

I think the level of enjoyment obtained from reading ‘Bel Canto’ depends almost entirely on whether you read it as a realist or as a romantic. This probably applies to a lot of fiction but particularly so for a novel like ‘Bel Canto’ which brings together elegant literary prose with a setting more typically associated with a thriller – the novel is loosely inspired by a real siege at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru in 1995 which lasted for four months.

From a realist perspective, there are a lot of highly improbable scenarios and coincidences to get annoyed about here. Mr Hosokawa romantically pursues Roxane despite neither of them sharing a common language while the translator Gen Watanabe and Carmen, one of the terrorists, also fall in love. There is relatively little panic among the hostages, nor do they seriously consider any escape plans. The terrorists and hostages eventually become united by the transcendental power of music and everyone is permanently enchanted by Roxane’s singing. One of Mr Hosokawa’s business associates is suddenly revealed to be a superb pianist over half way through. I could go on.

On the other hand, suggesting that the plot of ‘Bel Canto’ ought to be a bit more restrained or realistic would be missing the point somewhat. Many of the most famous operas (and soap operas) are full of utterly ridiculous plot twists and it is only appropriate that Patchett captures this element in a novel which deliberately mirrors their structures and themes. She manages to defy expectations in other imaginative ways too. Rather than gathering pace towards an explosive ending in the manner of a conventional thriller, the story becomes increasingly languorous before its sudden yet inevitably tragic conclusion.

As to be expected when applying the conventions of opera to literary fiction, ‘Bel Canto’ is beautifully told if dramatically flawed and I can see why it would greatly appeal to some readers but not others. Patchett’s latest book ‘Commonwealth’ sounds intriguing as does her collection of essays ‘This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage’ and I would love to know how ‘Bel Canto’ – which probably remains her best known novel – compares to her other work.

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30 responses to “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

  1. I started this book the year it won the award, but didn’t get very far. I just read Commonwealth and loved it, so now I feel like I need to give this another try. Thanks for the helpful review!

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  2. I’m a huge fan of Patchett’s work and recently read Commonwealth. As much as I enjoyed it, and I did greatly, it does not remain as seared in my memory as Bel Canto or State of Wonder.

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  3. I always enjoy your reviews! Great review!

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  4. I really enjoyed Bel Canto a lot, as well as State of Woner, but couldn’t stand Commonwealth, so confusing, some passages even badly written with lots of repetitions.
    Now you have to watch Bel Canto, as it was commissioned last year as an opera by the Chicago Lyric Opera. Libretto sung in Spanish, English, Japanese, Russian, German, French, Latin, Italian, and Quechua, the first time ever for Quechua to be sung at the opera!

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  5. oops, State of Wonder of course

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  6. I must have read it as a romantic, because I loved it. 🙂
    I have read most of her books, but still haven’t read her newest. It’s interesting to hear the differing opinions on which books are her best!

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  7. Great review. I have not read any of her books. I have Commonwealth on TBr though.

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  8. I read Patchett’s State of Wonder and that too had ludicrous plot twists and hard-to-imagine-in-real-life scenarios, but was beautifully written.

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  9. I remember when this first came out. I struggled the same way you did, (Really? One beautifully sung note can stop a violent situation?), but ultimately gave myself over to the story, the plot twists of which are right out of opera and, as you mention, soap opera. While flipping channels recently, I stumbled across an opera based on this book. I recorded it, waiting for a quiet three hours (hah!) when I can see what they did with it.

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  10. I am a huge Patchett fan and loved Bel Canto and The Story of a Happy Marriage. State of Wonder has the best snake story ever! Commonwealth is near the top of my TBR pile…can’t wait.

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  11. Patchett is one of my favorite authors. I usually forget most of what I read, by I remember Bel Canto. She mentioned in an interview that her latest book Commonwealth draws from her own life.

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  12. I still haven’t read this and I’m a tragic opera fan… must get there.

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  13. Having read Commonwealth earlier this year (and LOVING it), I’m keen to get hold of this one. As it happens, I’m an opera-lover 🙂

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  14. My book club loved Bel Canto. I thought it was terrific but if you’re looking for “realism” go somewhere else, that’s for sure. I’ve read a few other books by Pachett, enjoyed some abandoned others. Generally, I’d say she is always worth a try. You never know when you’ll get another Bel Canto.

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  15. I’m one of the ones who is a romantic and swooned for this book. It’s my favorite Patchett so far, but her memoir/bio of her friend Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty, is very good, as well as The Magician’s Assistant. (I’ve not yet read State of Wonder, Commonwealth, or her book of essays.)

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  16. Pingback: The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017: Longlist Predictions | A Little Blog of Books

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