Friday, February 15, 2019

#7 [2019/CBR11] "Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett

I picked up Bel Canto (2001) by Ann Patchett because it was chosen for my book club. And about a week after my book club met, I finally finished reading it. My tardiness in finishing should not reflect on this novel, which I found very interesting and read quickly. The problem was that I started reading the night before my book club met.

An unnamed South American country (most likely Peru) is wooing Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese business mogul, to invest in their country. They throw a lavish birthday party for Hosokawa at the Vice President's home. To entice Hosokawa to attend, they invite the famous, soprano opera singer, Roxanne Coss, to sing for him. The party is interrupted when terrorists from the jungle storm the house and take everyone as hostages.

Thus begins a long standoff between the government and the terrorists. The terrorists quickly let most of the workers and women go, but keep the wealthy, the important, and Roxanne Coss. Their plan was to kidnap the President, but they were disappointed to find that he did not attend. Suddenly they found themselves in a situation that they had not anticipated and did not know how to get out of. Of the terrorists, there were three "Generals" and fifteen soldiers, many of them young teenagers--and two of them girls. Of the hostages, Hosokawa was forced to stay along with his translator Gen. Gen, as merely an employee should have been let go, but he was too useful in a room full of so many different nationalities and languages. The Vice President was forced to stay, of course, along with a priest who chose to stay, as well as thirty or so other important, influential men.

Most of the book focuses on the intricacies of the different relationships as the long hostage situation continues indefinitely. The terrorists keep throwing out unreasonable demands and the government keeps on ignoring them. But the hostages and terrorists form their own little world with what they have, and many of them are not unhappy. Hosokawa is thrilled that he is able to spend so much time with Roxanne Coss, a woman he deeply admires. Some of the younger terrorists are delighted by a comfortable, warm home with running water and a television set. Eventually Roxanne Coss begins to sing again, and it brings everyone together in appreciation. Although the terrorists are not supposed to talk to the hostages about anything personal, personal relationships inevitably develop. Ishmael follows the Vice President around like a puppy. Carmen and Gen form an alliance when he begins to teach her how to read, and Roxanne finds a very talented young singer in the group.

However, the tension ratchets up as the book nears its end. The relationships have become more important and the characters more dear. The reader knows that life cannot continue in this unusual bubble for much longer and it's impossible to imagine how it can end well.

I enjoyed reading this book. I liked the details of the characters as well as the narrator's slightly judgmental point of view that was not afraid to point out hypocrisy. The tension of the story kept me turning the pages, and the characters kept me involved. Perhaps my only complaint is that the ending felt abrupt. I found myself wanting more information and more context, but I suspect that Patchett did this on purpose. I did not know that this book was based on the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1996-1997 until I'd finished reading it, but now I want to know more about it. I also watched the trailer for the 2018 movie. It didn't get great reviews, but I might have to watch it.

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