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May 19, 2013
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'Bel Canto' by Ann Patchett
Three to consider for your summer reading list
Sunday, July 29, 2001
By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Summer releases usually boast a high escapism quotient, and this trio delivers: a hostage drama; an ill-fated love story; and a family drama set against a backdrop of fast-paced hockey action. And if vacation time is just a mirage, then a gripping book is just what the therapist ordered as an antidote to reruns on the tube.
The action is off and running from the first sentence, when the lights go out during a black-tie party at the mansion of the vice president of a poor, revolution-torn South American country. Terrorists come pouring through the air-conditioning vents to seize the president of the country. But unknown to the armed invaders, the president has sent his regrets. They are left with a room full of international businessmen, diplomats and guests on the inside and a howling, vengeful military on the outside.
In short order, the captors -- a loyal but inexperienced cadre of teen-agers led by a handful of men who call themselves generals -- realize that escape is impossible. For lack of a plan, the waiting game begins. Patchett drops hints early that the terrorists’ errors will cost them dearly in the end -- warming up our sympathy for their cause, which is to secure the release of family members from prison.
The terrorists release most of their captives: the servants, the chronically ill and all the women -- except one. Roxane Coss is their guarantee that the outside forces will not risk a violent takeover.
Roxane is the world’s foremost lyric soprano. Lured by a high fee, she came to this remote venue to sing at a private party orchestrated by the Latin country to impress a visiting Japanese businessman, whom they had hoped to seduce into building a factory there.
Patchett cuts off the outside world and concentrates on the dynamics of captor-hostage friendships that blossom even at gunpoint. Once the fear of swift death subsides, both groups relax into a routine of mutual restraint and respect.
The author orchestrates a delicate opera of character revelations, secrets, declarations and thwarted desire, all set to an enthralling score of imagined music that holds both the characters and reader in its powerful sway.
Leading the cast is Roxane, an unspoiled American who is very protective of her rare vocal gifts but at the same time very giving. As the days turn into weeks, and the weeks into months, she demands -- and wins-- the right to practice. And her morning rehearsals are balm to bored and unhappy souls.
Katsumi Hosokawa, the party’s guest of honor, is a devoted opera lover. He never entertained the notion of doing business with his hosts but came halfway around the world to hear the great Roxane Coss. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would spend his days talking with his idol, albeit through an interpreter.
Gen, Hosokawa’s gifted translator, takes center stage in all the hostage negotiations because of his fluency in so many languages. He also becomes privy to many secrets and liaisons, the knowledge of which starts to draw him out of his self-imposed professional shell.
The novel stumbles on an imbalance of perspective. We never really come to know the depth of desperation that has driven the captors to this reckless act, and we never get a sense of the political climate that would allow a hostage situation to drag on for months. Patchett is so focused on the small human details that she tends to brainwash the reader, as she has her captives, that life has ceased to exist outside the walls of the cozy prison.
And yet Patchett holds our fascination hostage up until the swift and shocking denouement and startling epilogue. “Bel Canto” -- Italian for beautiful song -- is a beguiling work by a virtuosic writer.
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