#46 ~ Bel Canto


Bel Canto by Anne Patchett

I have only attended one opera in my life. I cannot remember its name. I saw it in Berlin on my second night in the city. Jet lag did not help me to stay awake or become involved in the experience. Still, I do not imagine that I would have been that much less sleepy or bored had I been fully awake. My lack of overall interest in opera did not in anyway impact my enjoyment of Bel Canto.

This book tells the story of a grand South American government banquet that is taken hostage by guerrilla warriors. The banquet was held for a Japanese businessman in hopes that he would open a factory in their country. Mr. H only agreed to attend the event because they paid a great price to have Roxanne, a brilliant soprano, perform for him. He never had any intention of opening a factory. Opera had been his passion from early childhood and he could not turn down the opportunity to see her in person.

The president of this country was supposed to be in attendance at this birthday banquet. He begged off at the last minute to stay home and watch the special Tuesday evening episode of his soap opera (he’s a man after my own heart – Latin soap operas are the best. I have such warm memories of watching those at my Bolivian youth group leader’s house on Wednesday nights). As the president was the object of the guerrillas, the kidnapping was a debacle from the beginning.

The beauty of this book comes from two for me: the descriptions of the main characters’ histories and their love of music and the description of the life that unfolded in the Vice President’s mansion throughout their months of captivity. Although I do not enjoy classical music or opera, I do have a strong connection to the music I do enjoy and can relate to the way in which music can move you beyond language. I know that I might very easily agree to attend an event at which U2 would be performing just for me if I only had to lie about something I might do in the future. I could then imagine being held hostage with Bono in close quarters…

I found Patchett’s writing very beautiful and, in comparison with Claire Messud, non-obtrusive. Thankfully, you can write about art and sophistication without having a pickle shoved up your bum. My only complaint would be with the short chapter that occurred after the siege was ended. There always seems to be a need to tie things up – even if it’s not always neat. I would have preferred to let my imagination take me into the character’s future.


  • At 2007.11.08 04:24, b*babbler said:

    Oh, I’m so glad you liked this book. I thought it was terrific, and have given it to several people as gifts.

    I love the insight she had for each of the characters, and how she fully fleshed out each of them instead of making them caricatures. A beautiful, lyrical piece of writing.

    • At 2007.11.26 16:51, Rhea said:

      I loved her book “The Magician’s Assistant,” but Bel Canto did not grab me. The premise was interesting but I wasn’t satisfied by the way the story played out.

      • At 2007.11.26 19:56, Literate Housewife said:


        Thank you so much for your comment!

        I was traveling to Denver while I was reading this book and was trying to give a plot summary to my seat-mate and it did sound somewhat absurd. He started laughing and I couldn’t really defend it – even though I enjoyed the book. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for The Magician’s Assistant.


        • At 2008.05.05 09:24, judi said:

          hi jennifer,

          i really would like to read this one b/c so many people have recommended it to me. and so far i’ve really been in line w/ a lot of your opinions on the books you’ve read, and you seemed to really like this one a lot. i’d love to check it out!!

          • At 2008.05.05 10:32, Literate Housewife said:

            Judi, Hi! You’re in. Good luck!!!

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            • At 2008.05.14 18:13, Erin said:

              Please enter me in the contest for Bel Canto. Thanks

              • At 2009.04.04 08:43, DianeG said:

                I loved this book, but agree the epilogu-ish ending was totally unneeded!

                When we did this as a “One City-One Book” selection, we had an operatic performance with readings from the book and arias/lyrics from the operas that Patchett referenced. It was such a fun Sunday afternoon!

                • At 2009.04.04 10:52, Heidi said:

                  I have always heard such great things about this novel but the opera topic was admittedly off-putting. I appreciated your review because of the U2 comparison. 🙂 I’m a longtime fan and if you could use them to relate to Patchett’s story then her writing must be as tight as they say it is. Thanks for the encouragement!

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