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I loved Bel Canto. I have read it before and enjoyed several other Ann Patchett books. She is able to very quickly establish a group of characters with distinct personalities. In this story, a group of people with varied backgrounds, different cultures, different ages and different reasons to be in the country, are all at a soiree with an opera singer as guest performer. A group of unhappy local people come in unexpectedly and keep the group hostage for many months. We meet individual hostages and hostage takers as they spend the time together. There are light moments of humour and deeper moments of insight into reactions from both sides. The ending is quick with an unexpected twist. Relationships unexpectedly develop. Hard to say more without giving away too much. A really good read.
As in her book The Dutch House, I found her characters to be immensely interesting and credible. I read a few reviews and some were quite scathing about her using a similar true life event for the premise of this book, as apparently this event was very political and violent. However, I don't agree with this as I feel most literature is taken from life, history and experience. Also authors, like all artists are surely allowed to use any references, resources and materials to create their art. This book didn't use any names or places to indicate that it was connected. It was beautifully written, captivating, interesting, humorous at times and a joy to read.
This novel was so good I feared it ending. Written so well that I now appreciate things more than previous to this book. A real story of the type of life we want being not what we think. During a COVID-19 lockdown I can think of no better book than this. It was so good I don't want to tell my peers to read it in case they offend me by not loving it.
I picked this book by accident but it was terrific. The hostages and the terrorists find each others’ humanity in this story that is a good one to read while you’re in lockdown. It’s a kind of parable I think, with a hopeful message. Great characterisations, wonderful writing, a real gem.
Bel Canto seems to be the Marmite of novels — you either love it or hate it. The one person in my book group who prefers non-fiction to fiction was captivated by it. She described the wonders of the characters and events in great detail. She described with great feeling incidents that had left me untouched. She accessed meaning and depth of character where I found none. She talked of love, magic, romance, of the transcendent power of music. For her Bel Canto was an immersive experience.
Unfortunately the rest of us had a range of less positive responses. I was the one who disliked it most and I remain flummoxed by it. It's an award-winner and I expected to enjoy it. The first 80 pages or so were readable and I settled down with the expectation that it would develop — but it became, for me, steadily more tedious, flat and unbelievable. I was locked out of it, as if watching the action from behind a glass screen. Because the characters cannot speak each others' languages there is very little dialogue, so there is little chance for them to talk for themselves. Patchett instead tells us what everyone is thinking and feeling: she tells us that Mr Hosokowa and Roxane Coss (the diva who casts her spell over everyone in the house) have fallen in love though I really couldn't see or believe it.
Patchett also seems to wilfully ignore psychology. What group of men (more than 50 if I remember correctly) held hostage by some pretty lacklustre terrorists inclined to spend their days watching TV, would not attempt some kind of rebellion? What group of alpha males would be so mesmerised by the sound and sight of Roxane Coss that they would all, every one, fall in love and become passive and content to live there for ever? I did wonder if this was an allusion to the Siren, beguiling all who hear her song — but no, there was nothing sinister or complex about it.
I longed for real detail about how everyone managed for weeks without a change of underwear, or how the single intermediary managed to get enough food into the house each day to feed all the captives and their captors for so long. Or what they all did all day, because I couldn't believe they were all content to just stare out of the window looking at the scenery: not for months on end. Nothing about the book felt authentic to me. Not the setting in some unnamed South American country which is vaguely ridiculed. Not the characters, not the way they are reported as interacting with each other. Imagine my astonishment when, after I'd finished, I discovered that it was based on real events in Lima in 1996.
Someone in the book group wondered whether Bel Canto is supposed to be understood like an opera. An implausible plot that exists only to offer opportunities for big emotions and arias. Characters who react unrealistically. A lack of everyday detail. A chorus of male hostages who are mainly silent and invisible until called on to fill a scene. A sudden dramatic ending. Unfortunately, Patchett can only tell us about the music, so the novel lacks the sublime musical moments that make the ridiculousness of most operas bearable. And this is a fundamental problem when writing a novel about music. You need to hear the music, not just be told how wonderful it is.
I think possibly the only way of knowing whether you'll fall under Bel Canto's strange spell or not is to read it for yourself. If you get to page 100 and are feeling bored and uninvolved, give up. It really isn't worth continuing if you are locked out.
Ann Patchett is an author that I have heard of but had never read any of her books. This book was recommended by a friend (whose taste I admire) and coincided with the author's latest book receiving some very positive marketing. So it's fair to say that I had high expectations. Whilst I was reading the book I was talking to others about it and many people I know have read it. To my delight I found this book to give me real joy as it is an amazing study of human nature. The action is set in an unspecified South American country where a party is drawn to an abrupt ending by a group of terrorists who then take everyone as hostages. We then follow the progress of the situation and observe how the relationships develop. In some ways the writing is immensely claustrophobic with frequent mention of the day to day detail necessary to maintain life and sanity. Surrounding this there is much beauty and love which seems both unlikely and absolutely natural at the same time. Inside the house the terrorists and the hostages seem content for time to drift as their lives slow down and it's very much the same for the reader. It is odd how such a gripping book took me a long time to read - that's usually a bad sign but with this book I was just savouring it. As the end approaches the tension for the reader mounts - we know the book is running out of pages but the hostages still have no idea what is going to happen (and I loved the end of the book, it was surprising but completely plausible). I was particularly curious about how the passing of time was illustrated. It would have been easy for the author to date time chapters (or something similar) but it is handled in a much more subtle way with the reader having to search for clues (clothes needing to be washed and beards having been grown as just two examples). We really only have a vague idea about how long the siege has been underway which is much the same for all those involved.
Enchanting story, told wonderfully. Read the negative reviews from those who expected a conventional action thriller and were disappointed. In fact this book is something far, far better. It has its tensions, but these are much more subtle as the characters and their relationships unfold in strange circumstances. And if you like music, especially opera, you are in for a rare treat.