Bel Canto (Patchett)

Bel Canto 
Ann Patchett, 2001
HarperCollins
318 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061565311


In Brief
 
Winner, 2002 Orange Prize
PEN/Faulkner Award

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding terrorists breaks in through the air-conditioning vents and takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different countries and continents become compatriots.

Without the demands of the world to shape their days, life on the inside becomes more beautiful than anything they had ever known before. At once riveting and impassioned, the narrative becomes a moving exploration of how people communicate when music is the only common language. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion and cannot be stopped. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—December 2, 1963
Where—Los Angeles, California, USA
Raised—Nashville, Tennessee
Education—B.A., Sarah Lawrence College; M.F.A., University of Iowa
Awards—Guggenheim Fellowship; PEN/Faulkner Award; Orange Prize
Currently—lives in Nashville, Tennessee


Ann Patchett is an American author of both fiction and nonfiction. She is perhaps best known for her 2001 novel, Bel Canto, which won her the Orange Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award and brought her nationwide fame.

Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Her mother is the novelist Jeanne Ray. Her father, Frank Patchett, who died in 2012 and had been long divorced from her mother, served as a Los Angeles police officer for 33 years, and participated in the arrests of both Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. The story of Patchett's own family is the basis for her 2016 novel, Commonwealth, about the individual lives of a blended family spanning five decades.

Education and career
Patchett attended St. Bernard Academy, a private Catholic school for girls run by the Sisters of Mercy. Following graduation, she attended Sarah Lawrence College and took fiction writing classes with Allan Gurganus, Russell Banks, and Grace Paley. She managed to publish her first story in The Paris Review before she graduated. After college, she went on to the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa

For nine years, Patchett worked at Seventeen magazine, writing primarily non-fiction; the magazine published one of every five articles she wrote. She said that the magazine's editors could be cruel, but she eventually stopped taking criticism personally. She ended her relationship with the magazine following a dispute with one editor, exclaiming, "I’ll never darken your door again!"

In 1990-91, Patchett attended the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It was there she wrote The Patron Saint of Liars, which was published in 1992 (becoming a 1998 TV movie). It was where she also met longtime friend Elizabeth McCracken—whom Patchett refers to as her editor and the only person to read her manuscripts as she is writing.

Although Patchett's second novel Taft won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in fiction in 1994, her fourth book, Bel Canto, was her breakthrough novel. Published in 2001, it was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and won the PEN/Faulkner Award and Britain's Orange Prize.

In addition to her other novels and memoirs, Patchett has written for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Oprah Magazine, ELLE, GQ, Gourmet, and Vogue. She is the editor of the 2006 volume of the anthology series The Best American Short Stories.

Personal
Patchett was only six when she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and she lives there still. She is particularly enamored of her beautiful pink brick home on Whitland Avenue where she has lived since 2004 with her husband and dog. When asked by the New York Times where would she go if she could travel anywhere, Patchett responded...

I've done a lot of travel writing, and people like to ask me where I would go if I could go anyplace. My answer is always the same: I would go home. I am away more than I would like, giving talks, selling books, and I never walk through my own front door without thinking: thank-you-thank-you-thank-you.... [Home is] the stable window that opens out into the imagination.

In 2010, when she found that her hometown of Nashville no longer had a good book store, she co-founded Parnassus Books with Karen Hayes; the store opened in November 2011. In 2012, Patchett was on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She is a vegan for "both moral and health reasons."

In an interview, she once told Barnes and Noble that the book that influenced her writing more than any other was Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow.

I think I read it in the tenth grade. My mother was reading it. It was the first truly adult literary novel I had read outside of school, and I read it probably half a dozen times. I found Bellow's directness very moving. The book seemed so intelligent and unpretentious. I wanted to write like that book.

Books
1992 - The Patron Saint of Liars
1994 - Taft
1997 - The Magician's Assistant
2004 - Truth and Beauty: A Friendship
2001 - Bel Canto
2007 - Run
2008 - What Now?
2011 - State of Wonder; The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life
2013 - This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
2016 - Commonwealth
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/5/2016.)



Book Reviews 
This is one of my favorite contemporary novels. Bel Canto uses a fairly conventional plot device, a group of strangers trapped in an isolated environment, but does so with elegance and considerable humor. The novel is filled delicious ironies and very some funny writing.
A LitLovers LitPick (Feb. '07)


As her readers now eagerly anticipate, Patchett (The Magician's Assistant) can be counted on to deliver novels rich in imaginative bravado and psychological nuance. This fluid and assured narrative, inspired by a real incident, demonstrates her growing maturity and mastery of form as she artfully integrates a musical theme within a dramatic story. Celebrated American soprano Roxane Coss has just finished a recital in the home of the vice-president of a poor South American country when terrorists burst in, intent on taking the country's president hostage. The president, however, has not attended the concert, which is a birthday tribute in honor of a Japanese business tycoon and opera aficionado. Determined to fulfill their demands, the rough, desperate guerrillas settle in for a long siege. The hostages, winnowed of all women except Roxane, whose voice beguiles her captors, are from many countries; their only common language is a love of opera. As the days drag on, their initial anguish and fear give way to a kind of complex domesticity, as intricately involved as the melodies Roxane sings during their captivity. While at first Patchett's tone seems oddly flippant and detached, it soon becomes apparent that this light note is an introduction to her main theme, which is each character's cathartic experience. The drawn-out hostage situation comes to seem normal, even halcyon, until the inevitable rescue attempt occurs, with astonishing consequences. Patchett proves equal to her themes; the characters' relationships mirror the passion and pain of grand opera, and readers are swept up in a crescendo of emotional fervor.
Publishers Weekly


Lucky Mr. Hosokawa. The well-connected Japanese business-man, now in an unnamed South American country on yet another job, is having a very special birthday party. At the home of the country's vice president, opera singer Roxane Cos will be performing for him and his guests. But what's this? Armed men invading the premises? These ragtag revolution-aries are looking for the president and disappointed that he is not there, but that doesn't stop them from holding the party goers hostage. What happens after that was, for this reviewer, a story that failed to ignite. Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars) generates little tension as she moves her players around the board, and one is disappointed that there is little reflection about the head-on clash of art and life. —Barbara Hoffert.
Library Journal


Combining an unerring instinct for telling detail with the broader brushstrokes you need to tackle issues of culture and politics, Patchett (The Magician's Assistant, 1997, etc.) creates a remarkably compelling chronicle of a multinational group of the rich and powerful held hostage for months. An unnamed impoverished South American country hopes to woo business from a rich Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa, by hosting a birthday party at which his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, entertains. Because the president refuses to miss his soap opera, the vice-president hosts the party. An invading band of terrorists, who planned to kidnap the president, find themselves instead with dozens of hostages on their hands. They free the less important men and all the women except Roxane. As the remaining hostages and their captors settle in, Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's multilingual translator, becomes the group's communication link, Roxane and her music its unifying heart. Patchett weaves individual histories of the hostages and the not-so-terrifying terrorists within a tapestry of their present life together. The most minor character breathes with life. Each page is dense with incident, the smallest details magnified by the drama of the situation and by the intensity confinement always creates. The outside world recedes as time seems to stop; the boundaries between captive and captor blur. In pellucid prose, Patchett grapples with issues of complexity and moral ambiguity that arise as confinement becomes not only a way of life but also for some, both hostage and hostage-taker, a life preferable to their previous existence. Readers may intellectually reject the author's willingness to embrace the terrorists' humanity, but only the hardest heart will not succumb. Conventional romantic love also flowers, between Gen and Carmen, a beguilingly innocent terrorist, between Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. Even more compelling are the protective, almost familial affections that arise, the small acts of kindness in what is, inevitably, a tragedy. Brilliant.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Describe Roxane Coss. What is it about her that makes such an impression on the other hostages and the terrorists? Is it merely that she is famous? How does her singing and the music relate to the story?

2. Even though he is given the opportunity to leave the mansion, Father Arguedas elects to stay with the hostages. Why does he decide to stay when he risks the possibility of being killed? As the narrative states, why did he feel, "in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck?" (pg. 74). Isn't this an odd reaction to have given the situation? What role does religion play in the story?

3. are numerous instances in the story where Mr. Hosokawa blames himself for the hostages' situation. He says to Roxane, "But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion." Roxane replies with the following: "Or did I?" she said. "I thought about declining…. Don't get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if I ever saw one. I just don't blame you." Is either one to blame for the situation? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?

4. Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa speak different languages and require Gen to translate their conversations. Do you think it's possible to fall in love with someone to whom you cannot speak directly?

5. "Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, however improbable to those around them, were members of the same tribe, the tribe of the hostages.... But Gen and Carmen were another matter" (pg. 294). Compare the love affairs of Gen and Carmen and Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. What are the elements that define each relationship?

6. We find out in the Epilogue that Roxane and Gen have been married. How would you describe their relationship throughout the story? Thibault believes that "Gen and Roxane had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered" (pg. 318). What do you think of the novel's ending? Did it surprise you? Do you agree with Thibault's assessment of Gen and Roxane's motivations for marrying?

7. The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived" (pg. 197). How does this observation about the weather mirror what is happening inside the Vice President's mansion?

8. At one point Carmen says to Gen, "'Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?'" (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: "Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier." Messner then says to him, "'You were the brightest one here once, and now you're as crazy as the rest of them'" (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the "real" world?

9. When the hostages are finally rescued, Mr. Hosokawa steps in front of Carmen to save her from a bullet. Do you think Mr. Hosokawa wanted to die? Once they all return to their lives, it would be nearly impossible for him to be with Roxane. Do you think he would rather have died than live life without her?

10. The story is told by a narrator who is looking back and recounting the events that took place. What do you think of this technique? Did it enhance the story, or would you have preferred the use of a straight narrative?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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