Originally published: 2002
Author: Ann Patchett
Published by: 4th Estate
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 318 pages
Reading dates: 25-30 November 2022
The Shoreham by Sea book club are following the Chichester Libraries Reading Challenge this year and the choice for November was a prize winning book. We always make suggestions and then vote and Bel Canto was chosen (which was great as it was on my TBR). Bel Canto has won many awards including The Women’s Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honour of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera’s most revered soprano, has mesmerised the international guests with her singing.
It is a perfect evening – until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.
Bel Canto begins as world famous opera singer Roxanne Coss is performing for a group of high powered businessmen and politicians, in honour of Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese business man and opera enthusiast. The president of the unnamed South American country where the book is set, is hoping Mr Hosokawa will build factories to invest in their country. As she is finishing her song, the lights go out and the distinguished group soon realise that they have been invaded by a group of terrorists.
The terrorists are a group described as being from the jungle in this South American country, who led by 3 generals, want to kidnap the president in order to negotiate the release of political prisoners. The only problem is that the president isn’t there – he chose not to attend the event to watch his favourite soap opera so it is left up to the vice president to deal with the terrorists. Before long, all the women and children are released, except for Roxanne Cos, who is kept for leverage.
The relationship between the terrorists and hostages is very interesting – the situation goes on for over 4 months and a bond forms between some of the captors and hostages (known as Stockholm syndrome). Mr Hosokawa’s translator Gen forms a strong bond with a young female terrorist, Mr Hosokawa himself plays one of the generals at chess and another of the terrorists turns out to have a beautiful voice and is taught by Roxanne. Relationships also form between the hostages, despite them not sharing the same language. The character I found really interesting with Gen, the translator. He can speak multiple languages and so is probably the most valued person there as the hostages are from all over the world and he becomes the go between for conversations, learning everyone’s secrets.
Unfortunately, I found the first two thirds of the book hard going. I didn’t engage with the story or the characters and if it wasn’t for book club, I wouldn’t have carried on. But once I hit the final third, something just clicked and I couldn’t stop reading. We discussed it in book club as we all found it a little slow going and we wondered if this was intentional to mimic how the hostages might have been feeling over the long months of captivity with little to do. By the end I was completely invested in the characters and situation and ended up giving the book 4 stars on Goodreads. I did find the epilogue strange though but I won’t say why. It did feel a little as if the author didn’t really know how to finish the book!
According to Wikipedia, Bel Canto is based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis (also called the Lima Crisis) of 1996–1997 Lima, Peru.
I watched the 2018 movie version last week after finishing the book and it was a good adaptation staring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe. What I did notice was that I didn’t have the same attachment or understanding of the characters which I got from the book, so I guess that is the advantage to a slow build in the story! But I would recommend it – even my partner enjoyed it and he doesn’t usually like my film choices🤣 !
About the author:
Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California. Her mother is the novelist Jeanne Ray.
She moved to Nashville, Tennessee when she was six, where she continues to live. Patchett said she loves her home in Nashville with her doctor husband and dog. If asked if she could go any place, that place would always be home. “Home is …the stable window that opens out into the imagination.”
Patchett attended high school at St. Bernard Academy, a private, non-parochial 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 later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she met longtime friend Elizabeth McCracken. It was also there that she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars.
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 the Time 100 list of most influential people in the world by TIME magazine.
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