Bel Canto (Review)


Bel Canto
Ann Patchett, 2001
318 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
February 2007

In Bel Canto Ann Patchett uses an age-old plot device which hinges on a group of strangers trapped in an isolated environment. As old as the technique is—it goes back to The Decameron of the 14th century—Patchett's use of it is fresh, elegant and, at times, very funny.

Fifty-seven men, and one female opera singer, from different countries with different languages, are held hostage in an unnamed Latin American country by a group of terrorists. Patchett turns up the heat, or in this case the music, and we get to watch what happens.

The novel is filled delicious ironies and very some funny writing. At one point the great international diva is separated out from the other women. She is ordered to stand over by a certain Matisse painting, a painting that was, "in all honesty, a minor work." So the narrator tells us. It's such a funny line, slyly delivered and coming out of nowhere.

Later, her accompanist nearing death from lack of insulin, the singer sinks to the floor beside him: "It was a lovely sight" with "her dress billowing out like a canopy of new spring leaves." In true opera serio style, she clasps the poor man's hands in hers—every man in the room gazing in rapt envy and imagining what it would be like to be so deeply loved by this woman. Yet "the truth was, she had hated the accompanist a little," and the only tribute she can muster on his behalf is "he was punctual"!

There are other wonderful incongruities: the terrorists are addicted to soap operas; an articulate, young translator is incapable of expressing his own desires; an exhausted Red Cross negotiator envies the hostages their vacation-like confinement; the country's vice president scurries about with a dish towel tucked in his belt.

The hostage scene turns into a place of enchantment where time stands still. Music overcomes the inadequacy of language to touch peoples' souls, of hostages and terrorists alike, and binds everyone together in a common humanity. It's a terrific story.

See our Reading Guide for Bel Canto.

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