In Ann Patchett’s captivating novel, Bel Canto, the absence of an opera singer during a real-life hostage crisis becomes the catalyst for a fantastical and passionately romantic rendition of events. While the initial lightheartedness sets the stage, the novel delves into the complexities of life under siege, showcasing Patchett’s extraordinary range as a writer.
A Captivating Setup
Renowned soprano Roxane Coss finds herself lured to a small Latin American country, enticed by the promise of a substantial payday and blinding her usual meticulousness. She becomes the bait for opera fanatic Katsumi Hosokawa, the founder of a wealthy electronics company, who is hosting a birthday party with hopes of attracting investment. As Roxane’s final aria reaches its crescendo, the lights dim, and terrorists infiltrate the palatial home filled with elegantly dressed guests. This electrifying overture sets the stage for the novel’s gripping narrative.
Varied Rhythms and Emotions
Patchett’s true genius in Bel Canto lies in her ability to seamlessly transition between different tones and emotions. With confidence and inventiveness, she expertly navigates between moments of brutality and terror, and stretches of monotonous captivity. Her writing encompasses everything from clever humor to poignant reflections on yearning and desire. Much like the intricate performance of an opera, Patchett effortlessly moves from campy theatrics to heartbreaking tragedy, from subtle social comedy to sublime romanticism.
A Surprising Harmony
After the initial tension and danger subside, the kidnapped household settles into an unexpected peaceful rhythm. The terrorists’ mission fails when they realize their true target, the country’s president, is absent. Instead, they find themselves captivated by the opulence and the allure of a captivating soap opera. As the terrorists idly go about their half-hearted drills, they become hooked on the TV drama, indulging in pistachio nuts and scented lotions.
Unusual Alliances and Unexpected Freedom
Deprived of their original goal, the inept revolutionary generals find themselves running errands to fulfill Roxane’s every whim. As they cater to her demands and hold their dwindling hostage count, Roxane ensnares the household with her captivating vocal performances. The ingenious twist of this hijacking is that the captors have nowhere to escape, and the hostages have no desire to be released. Mr. Hosokawa, captivated by his idol’s proximity, experiences a dream come true. The loyal translator Gen, the only polyglot present, finds unexpected liberation in his role as a communicator between captors and captives. Meanwhile, an improbable love blossoms in the darkness of a china cupboard between Gen and a terrorist aptly named Carmen.
A Stellar Supporting Cast
Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of quirky and endearing characters. Patchett breathes life into these stereotypical foreigners, infusing the story with humor rather than superficiality. From the tearful Frenchman, Simon Thibault, to the Swiss hostage negotiator resembling a devout representative of an American religion, each character adds depth and color to the narrative. The chain-smoking Russian, Fyodorov, captivates Roxane with tales of unrequited love and melancholic childhood memories. Patchett skillfully weaves these lives into the larger story, seamlessly integrating them into the tapestry of Bel Canto.
The Inevitable Tragedy
As an opera demands, Bel Canto hurtles towards an unforeseen and undesired conclusion for both captors and captives. Outside the confined world, a megaphone threatens to drown out Roxane’s exquisite singing with a voice that roars like a tumultuous ocean. Throughout the novel, allusions to the future keep individual fates shrouded in mystery. The reader knows that time will move forward, but the identities of those who will survive until the end remain concealed.
A Bittersweet Finale
At the beginning of the novel, Roxane sings Dvorák’s Rusalka aria at Mr. Hosokawa’s request. The mermaid in the opera falls in love with a mortal, foregoing her voice and transforming into a spirit of death. The novel mirrors this operatic theme, with the captives enduring misty, drizzly days that render the passage of time insignificant. When the mist finally lifts, Roxane’s enchantment must come to an end, and with it, the novel. The revelation of whom the spirit of death chooses is saved until the penultimate chapter, and the subsequent return to brutal reality is both shocking and lamentable. Like the bewildered captives, readers can’t help but yearn for the spell never to break.