Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

28255450Fiction — audiobook. Read by Anna Fields. Blackstone Audio, 2008. Originally published 2001. 11 hours, 24 minutes. Library copy. 

In an unnamed country in South America, guests arrive at the Vice President’s home to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese businessman, Katsumi Hosokawa. Eager to woo the businessman and encourage him to invest in the country, the country has invited a famous American opera singer by the name of Roxane Cross to serenade Katsumi.

The party is interrupted by a group of young men wielding guns who break into the home and take those at the party hostage. Realizing their small group cannot control the moves of every hostage and recognizing that Cross’ accompaniment on the piano has grown ill, the band of terrorists release nearly all the hostages. All but those they deem most important, including Katsumi, Roxane, and the translator Gen Watanabe.

“Maybe the private life wasn’t forever. Maybe everyone got it for a little while and then spent the rest of their lives remembering.” (pg. 291-292)

As the days become weeks, the hostages and the terrorists grow to learn more about themselves and about each other. Some like the vice president learn there are skills in house cleaning and people like chefs they have never appreciated. Others learn to bridge the language divide with a shared love of music and begin to fall in love.

When my book club selected this as our May read, I assumed the novel could be classified as a thriller and would be action-packed. I should have known better given the title (and the author)! The action comes in the beginning of the novel when the armed men show up and at the end when the hostage situation is resolved, but the bulk of the novel is dedicated to a slow study of a large number of characters.

Which is something I rather enjoyed for the first two hundred or so pages. I enjoyed getting to know the different characters, particular Gen the translator and the hostage taker who turns out to be a woman.

But I felt the last hundred pages became a slog; I wanted the story to move forward rather than to continue to listen to the characters discuss opera. In fact, if I hadn’t been in such a time crunch to finish before my book club met, I doubt I would have read (er, listened) to the novel so quickly. (Even then, I still didn’t finish the novel before we met.)

The focus on opera might have worked better for me if it had been integrated into the audiobook. I actually switched to the audiobook in the hopes that the names of famous opera singers and particular works would be supported by dubbed in music. No such luck. I still had to resort to Googling and searching out audio clips on my own.

The epilogue was abrupt and distasteful after so much of the novel was dedicated to the unfolding love stories between other characters, and I wish she had cut it like she did the prologue. At least, however, the epilogue provided fodder for a decently long conversation at my book club’s meeting. That was about the only aspect of the novel we felt interested in discussing.

And I was rather disappointed when our host for the evening said this was her favorite of Patchett’s books. The writing style and the characterization are there, but I’m not sure the overall experience is enough to induce me to pick up another one of her novels any time soon.

Bel Canto was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2002 and won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction that same year. 

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3 comments

  1. I’ve had Bel Canto on my shelf for a few years now. It’s perpetually one of those books I want to “get to” every year, but never do. Not sure why.

    Your review touches on something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how a reader’s expectations of a book change as they get closer to the end of it. I often find that I crave propulsion near the end of the book. I really want things to move. Books that remain at a slow pace through the conclusion often frustrate me, as it seems to have done here, too. I’ve been thinking whether this is a problem with me, as a reader, or whether this is something that author’s should factor in.

    Thoughts?

    Like

    • Interesting thought, Rick. This probably isn’t the best book for me to use as an example because I attended my book club meeting before finishing the book so I was anxious to get to an ending I already knew.

      In general, I find I feel more anxious for the book to end when it is one that I’m not entirely in love with. It’s more that I’m eager to move on to the next book, but feel I have put in so much time into the current one that I feel I must finish it. When I’m loving a book, I’m more inclined to wish it would slow down. And those feelings of love and dislike aren’t something the author can really factor in since they vary from person to person.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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