Favorite novel – 2010

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (published in 2001).

I love this book! It’s wonderful. Looking back through my reading journal, I find that I (first) read it in 2010, but wrote only that it was “magical” and dealt with music and love.

!! SPOILER ALERT !! Stop here if you don’t want to know the outcome. But do read the book!

I wasn’t sure whether the term “bel canto” referred to the singer or the song. Wikipedia tells me it an Italian operatic style, light and agile, with clear phrasing. The main female character in the book is an American opera singer of highest reputation. She has the misfortune to be taken hostage at a diplomatic party in an unnamed third world country, along with several dozen men.

If I start to summarize the story, this will go on forever. The plot is “encapsulated”, tight – terrorists invade a party and take hostages. A long period of (gradually decreasing) tension and negotiation ensues. The mansion in which the hostages are held becomes a microcosm and Patchett develops complex, surprising and loveable characters and relationships within it.

Two themes that twine through this book are music and language. Everyone is in love with the singer – she is beautiful, accomplished, famous, and usually gracious. Even the young, unsophisticated terrorists worship her, and over time, everything revolves around her singing.

Two important male characters are an ultra wealthy Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, and his younger translator, named Gen. Gen becomes the communication node in a group where five or six languages are in use – Spanish, English, French and Russian, primarily, and sometimes Italian. it turns out some of the terrorists speak mostly an indigenous language, and barely understand Spanish, so Gen is sometimes at a loss.

There’s another fascinating male character, Messner, the Swiss Red Cross negotiator who is the only person able to come and go freely from the besieged mansion. He is sophisticated, experienced at negotiation, and knows that the situation is likely to end in terrible violence. So, what does it mean to be “neutral”? What can he accomplish?Messner struggles with this.

Inevitably, the fragile “community” is torn apart. All the terrorists are killed, and the hostages go back to their lives with memories and scars that will be permanent and incomprehensible to those around them. The book, somehow, is more positive than negative.

I will probably return to this book over and over. It’s a treat.

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