by Ann Patchett
Star Rating: 4 out of 4
I'm almost always able to pick out the point at which a book really grabs me. Rarely this occurs with a first sentence, but more often it happens at some point in the first 50-100 pages. (If it doesn't happen by then, usually I put down the book.) With Bel Canto, it was on page 23, and I knew it because I could physically feel the words piercing past my defenses and nestling in. This book is special.
The setting is this: a group of international dignitaries and businessmen have gathered at the Vice President's house in an unnamed South American country in order to celebrate the fifty-third birthday of Mr. Hosokawa, a prominent Japanese businessman. The only reason Mr. Hosokawa attends is because they've managed to engage his favorite opera singer, the soprano Roxane Coss, to perform at the event. However, terrorists of that country invade the house in an attempt to capture the (absent) President, and end up keeping many of the attendees hostage. Over the course of the captivity, bonds begin to form, and every life is changed. The lines that caught me come just after the terrorists have taken the room:
Okay, that's a long quote. But just there, in that one section of a paragraph, Patchett creates an entire life behind the faces behind the guns. It's easy to envision the young terrorists (many of whom are in their early teens) carrying water pails, preparing meals, chopping wood, and living this poor, simple life, never encountering any of the pleasures or privileges of a first-world society. I didn't discover opera until I was an adult, and by then I'd done some vocal training of my own and could appreciate the technique as well as the sound. But I could imagine being young - still a kid, really - and hearing, for the first time, a trained soprano soaring her notes. It would be like hearing divinity.
They had heard her sing while they waited in the air-conditioning vents. They each had a task, extremely specific instructions. The lights were to be cut off after the sixth song, no one ever having explained in their lives the concept of an encore. No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way, under one's breath, while carrying wood into the house or water up from the well. No one having explained anything. Even the generals, who had been to the capital city before, who had had educations, held their breath so as to better hear her. The young terrorists waiting in the air-conditioning vents were simple people and they believed simple things. When a girl in their village had a pretty voice, one of the old women would say she had swallowed a bird, and this was what they tried to say to themselves as they looked at the pile of hairpins resting on the pistachio chiffon of her gown: she has swallowed a bird. But they knew it wasn't true. In all their ignorance, in all their unworldliness, they knew there had never been such a bird.
I think that experience of empathy with the terrorists opened up the rest of the book for me. Atmosphere here is crucial: the story establishes the creation of a world entirely seperate from the outside between the terrorists and the captives, which means Patchett has to recreate the experience of being in that world for her readers, or the whole thing flops. It worked for me because I found the captives sympathetic, and after the quote above, I cared about the terrorists too. From that point on, I was completely involved. I felt like the book was inside my heart and I was reading it from the inside out.
The book makes a great deal out of music, showing how the shared emotional experience from hearing great music can create bonds. In fact, it's one of the only ways that the characters can communicate, given that they're all from different countries and don't speak one another's languages. There is one translator among the group, Gen, who moves among both the terrorists and the captives providing his service. Everyone speaks through him, and he acts as a conduit for their secrets, their demands, and even their professions of love. He shares meaning among the group in a tangible way, while Coss, the soprano, sings it through them.
Love plays as significant a role in the evolving character relationships as does music, but this is one of those situations where English has really shot itself in the foot by not having more than one word for all the different kinds of love. Roxane Coss, as the only remaining female and the one providing the music that unites them all, becomes the focus for much attention from the rest of the group, but though many of them claim to love her, it's not sexual love - it's closer to reverence. They love her for what she can do, for the magic she possesses. This is not to say that sexual love doesn't come into play in the book; those relationships develop too, slowly and sweetly. And then there are gentlemanly friendships. The entire book observes humans connecting with one another.
I really enjoyed watching all the characters changing over the course of the captivity. My favorites were the devout young priest, who stays voluntarily to minister to the captives, and Carmen and Cesar, two of the young terrorists who are far more than appearances might suggest. My one caveat for the book is the awful epilogue - really, skip it if you can - it's a terrible wrapping up and the whole time I was reading it I was thinking EW NO BAD WRONG. (Kind of like the Harry Potter 7 epilogue. But I'd better not get started on that.) Anyway, aside from that epilogue, I thought it was absolutely mesmerizing and highly recommend it.