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Bel Canto

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Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized 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.

318 pages, Paperback

First published May 22, 2001

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About the author

Ann Patchett

64 books18.4k followers
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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Displaying 1 - 30 of 17,784 reviews
Profile Image for Annalisa.
547 reviews1,376 followers
June 1, 2016
Let me preface this review by saying that I know this a disproportionately emotional review, but it's my review and my emotions and it is what it is.

In 1996, the home of the Japanese ambassador to Peru was taken hostage by guerillas during a party and held for 126 days until the home was raided by military force killing all the insurgents, many executed after they surrendered. At a time when Peru suffered an undercurrent of terrorist activity, president Fujimori was praised for his handling of the crisis and his approval rating soared. Since then, the commanders in the Peruvian army have been on trial for homicide but granted amnesty because they were praised as national heros. President Fujimori himself is in prison for human rights violations, not from this incidence, but still an interesting side note since those loss of rights are linked to his low tolerance for terrorist activity. A very interesting story that happened in Peru, a country with a name and a history more interesting than opera, but this I'm afraid was not that story.

It upset me to realize that Patchett was using a piece of Peruvian history with no intention of telling a story of Peru or its political unrest or even including a proper description of the country. She only refers to "the host country" or "this godforsaken country" in a vague brush of one of those South American countries that aren't very important or distinct. Did she neglect to put Peru in the story because it defames the country or really is it that they just aren't interesting enough to her? I know I shouldn't be offended that she dedicated this whole book to an opera singer who wasn't even part of the crisis and even gave it an Italian name, but a little bit I am. Even the "about the book" section is dedicated all to loving opera without a mention to the actual crisis that inspired the events.

There is a passage in the book about Roxane, the opera singer, singing a Czech piece and Gen, the translator, notes the distinction between knowing the words and speaking the language and only someone who spoke the language would see the lack of understanding. Maybe my reading this book was a little like that. I felt like I was reading two books simultaneously. The one about opera with vague, inaccurate concepts of an unnamed Peru where, if I had let Patchett guide my visual picture of the book I would have imagined the Von Trapp house stuck in the middle of the Amazon jungle. And the other of what I know about Peru and the crisis situation, trying to meld that visual to this story.

I realize that this is a piece of fiction and Patchett has the artistic license to write a fictional description of the crisis anyway she wishes, but I didn't like the story she chose to tell. A hostage situation is intense, but even the takeover she stretches through wanderings of the love of opera and manages to dull it so that not even the hostages seem anything other than mildly putout. Maybe it's because I'm not a opera lover (there are opera pieces I enjoy, but as a whole it's not something I seek out), but I found it unbelievable that all these people (most of them men) would be so mesmerized by an opera singer and all of them fall in love with her and her music. I felt as though Patchett was using this story as a vehicle to force me to love opera and me on the other side of the pages resists for nothing more than the force of her request.

It took me over 200 pages to get into this 300-page story and the only thing that eventually drew me in and saved it was the relationships between the hostages and their captors. In a normal setting I may not have believed it, but I did of the generally humble Peruvians, which is why the country should have been vital to the story. It took Patchett awhile to get there, but eventually I did like the characters. Even though I knew how it would end, I was anxious for the conclusion, to avoid inevitable tragedy. I could have done without the epilogue that was unnecessary and cheap. If Patchett wanted to include an epilogue, maybe she should have included one about the actual events. Or maybe it's all too appropriate that Peru was ignored. Okay, I'm done with my Peruvian inferiority complex over here. Feel free to talk about the actual story in your review or in the comments section.

1.5 stars, somewhere between a book prevented from being a great story and a book that upset me according to my own star ratings. I did find some merit in the book by the end, but it wasn't enough to overcome Patchett's inability to research her setting.
Profile Image for Lucy.
475 reviews604 followers
March 24, 2009
This book came highly recommended, and once I started reading, I kept thinking I had already but couldn't, for the life of me, remember how it ended. Turns out, it only seemed familiar to me because it is based on a real life experience. In 1995, the president of Peru and many of his guests were taken hostage and held for months. Bel Canto is a fictitious story based loosely on those events.

I only liked Bel Canto. I understand its appeal - the coming together of hostages and terrorists alike, but the writing was a bit too ethereal and romantic for me. SO much emphasis placed on opera, as if it's the universal band-aid. I know a lot of people that don't enjoy opera at all. In fact, a music lover myself, I'd have to admit that most of opera is an acquired taste. The hugeness of the voice, the strong vibrato and foreign languages take some getting used to. However, according to the author, there is no politician, businessman, servant or gunman that doesn't fall into a deep state of hypnosis when a soprano begins her song. I tend to think that perhaps the terrorist from a South American country, where musical tastes are a bit different, might not have been so cast under her spell, but I could be wrong. I've never thought of it as the only offered solace to a terrifying situation.

Which leads me to the other thing that I find a hard time believing. Terrorists...with guns....coming through air vents into a vice presidential palace and no one seems particularly petrified throughout it all. Again, I think this was the author's way of romanticizing the event by leaving out the crapping of pants and desperate pleas for loved ones, but everyone was annoyingly contrite and calm, even the terrorists themselves, who seemed awfully nice and understanding.

The end was appropriately tragic. I read a few reviews that described this as an example of magical realism, a genre I try and avoid so this labeling surprised me. Maybe all the lack of fear, suspended time and happy hostage household was part of it. The ending, while sad and tragic, satisfied my need for logic and realism. This event seemed to have a larger psychological effect on the survivors then the original hostage takeover. Whether or not that is realistic or not, I have no idea.

I wish she hadn't written her epilogue. It was unnecessary and unbelievable. Sort of like how all doctors on a hospital television show end up as couples, as if there were no one else in the world to date or socialize with. .

The book as a whole, however, is not void of greatness. The Russian cabinet member and his story of the box was poetic. Cesar's natural talent and love of performing made me cheer. And the inward look at most regarding their professions and priorities was very appropriate.

All combined, it makes for an enjoyable, flawed book.

Profile Image for Fabian.
956 reviews1,623 followers
April 10, 2020
Holy crap! This "1-Dayer" deserves applause & praise indeed as it will surely stay with you like some truly terrific (& best yet, catchy) song for days, for weeks to come.

What happens when terrorists take over a party held in honor of a Japanese businessman at the house of the Vice President of some unknown South American city? A translator is thankfully employed, a Diva is made to sing like a modern Scheherazade. Renaissance flourishes as these individuals in the most insane of circumstances come together to realize the true WORTH of people and the VALUE of themselves. This is what all those characters in Boccaccio did... ! (& anyone reaching the very heights reached by Boccaccio must MUST be extolled!)

This Stockholm Syndrome is comical, sad, romantic. It's written with a less amount of elegance than the cover promises--but that is hardly ever a fault in this book, ripe & so ready to be inscribed into the canon.
Profile Image for Jaidee.
605 reviews1,196 followers
May 29, 2019
1.5 "overwrought, stereotypical, ridiculous" stars !!

2015 Most Disappointing Read Award (tie)

Of all the books on my reading list, "Bel Canto" was one that I was most looking forward to. You see after my faith and my loved ones the thing I most adore is Opera.

Opera has been my passion, my solace, my escape and the most direct connection to my emotional life. I have found Opera beautiful, profound, wise and affirming. I was introduced to Opera at the age of 10 and since then there has not been a day where I have not listened to it. I remember traveling through Colombian jungle (with some friends) at the age of twenty four and ran out of batteries for my discman. I was working through some obscure Russian opera at the time. My mood plummeted so severely that one of my friends took out her AA batteries from her mini-flashlight. (now that's a good friend)so that I could listen at night until we reached the next village.

I read "The Patron Saint of Liars" by Patchett in 2013 and thought it was a very good book (3.5 stars) full of psychological insight and an understanding of what disconnection does to family relationships. I was expecting this book to be even better as it won awards, was a later novel and for God's sake was about Opera.

From the get go I felt my heart sink and chapter after chapter I read in disbelief that this was the same book that others gave such accolades. The book rang so false to my ear. The melodrama and overly disgustingly sweet sentimentality was jarring, discomforting and infuriating.

I somehow suspected that Ann Patchett had subcontracted a junior writer from Disney Animation and another burned out writer from Harlequin Romance to come together and churn this out while she joined their ideas and linked them with a very few gorgeous passages. The characters were absolute caricatures with extreme gender and ethnic stereotypes. The emotions and story line were completely illogical and the whole experience left me both angry and depleted.

The only thing that will act as salve to cure my disappointment is to go and listen to Diana Damrau sing some heavy Richard Strauss songs with orchestra. Thank goodness for that.

Addendum: My partner just noted that I rated Veronica Wants to Die by Paulo Coelho higher than this. This is getting scary.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews41 followers
October 15, 2021
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

Bel Canto is the fourth novel by American author Ann Patchett, published in 2001 by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It was also adapted into an opera in 2015.

Based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis (also called the Lima Crisis) of 1996–1997 in Lima, Peru, the novel follows the relationships among a group of young terrorists and their hostages, who are mostly high-profile executives and politicians, over several months.

Many of the characters form unbreakable bonds of friendship, while some fall in love.

Set in an unspecified South American country, the story begins at a birthday party thrown at the country's vice presidential home in honor of Katsumi Hosokawa, the visiting chairman of a large Japanese company and opera enthusiast.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش: روز دوم ماه ژانویه سال 2017میلادی

عنوان: بل کانتو؛ نویسنده: آن پچت؛ مترجم: محمد عباس آبادی؛ تهران، افراز، 1395؛ در 373ص؛ شابک 9786003261853؛ موضوع داستانهای نویسندگان ایالات متحده آمریکا - سده 21م

جشن تولدی در خانه‌ ی معاون رئیس‌ جمهور یکی از کشورهای «آمریکای لاتین» برپاست؛ مهمان‌ها از سراسر دنیا آمده‌ اند، و در میان آن‌ها یک خواننده‌ ی سوپرانو؛ و میلیاردری «ژاپنی» حضور دارند؛ همه‌ چیز خوب پیش می‌رود، تا اینکه گروهی تروریست وارد خانه می‌شوند؛ هدف آن‌ها رئیس‌ جمهور است، امّا او در این جشن حضور ندارد؛ اکنون دیگر راه بازگشتی؛ نه برای مهمانان، و نه برای تروریست‌ها نیست؛ آنچه باقی می‌ماند کلنجار با موقعیتی مهیب، احساسات عاشقانه، و روابطی انسانی است، که سیاست و اپرا و عشق را به هم گره می‌زند

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 07/09/1399هجری خورشیدی؛ 22/07/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for Debbie.
454 reviews2,886 followers
June 18, 2017

How could a wanna-read-bad TBR turn into a sorry-ass DNF?


Who AM I? I finish every book I start, yet I did not finish this one! And I LOVE Ann Patchett! Her State of Wonder is one of my all-time favorite books! What the fuck is going on?

I’m having a serious crisis here. Have I thought this out carefully? Can I really pull off abandoning this book? I must do it. Calm down. It’s okay. Listen to your friends who whisper, “It’s fine….let go…” A zillion other books are beckoning. Yes, life is too short to keep reading something you hate. If I repeat that last sentence enough times, I’ll start believing it, right?

Oh my god, I did it! I DNF’d it, and I didn’t die! (A weird feeling still remains, however.)

I’m so speechless about throwing this book out the window that I’ve resorted to acronyms to express myself, blurting out clumps of capital letters and exclamation points. Usually I rely on strong verbs and a chain of touchy adjectives, but here, no. I just have unpronounceable cap combos. Now that’s bad.

Let’s start with the fact that yes, I’ve been dying to read this. The title, however, shooed me away for a long while; I hate opera and all its bel-canto-ness. Then a friend assured me that it wasn’t about opera, that it was about a terrorist attack with a bunch of hostages. So I ignored my title hatred and rubbed my hands in glee. Who doesn’t like a good hostage story, as long as it’s in the hands of a pro? And I knew Patchett’s a pro.

I don’t know how she did it, but Patchett managed to make a terrorist attack boring. I didn’t get a sense of mad confusion or terror; it all seemed muted and sort of civilized. And eventually, many of the terrorists become nice guys. I know she wanted to show their humanity but she went overboard.

And my biggest complaint is that she told us immediately who wins in the end. Completely ruined it for me! The fun is in wondering how it turns out. I don’t know what she was thinking, seriously.

I don’t like opera, as I’ve said. Surely there would have been at least a few hostages and terrorists who didn’t like it either. But no, every single person seemed to be transported to la-la land when the little songbird opened her mouth. If it were me lying on the floor, surrounded by armed terrorists, I would be bemoaning not only my questionable fate, but also the fact that I was stuck in a room listening to non-stop eardrum-shattering high-pitched screeching. Just my luck, I’d be thinking. It would disrupt any calming thoughts I was working on, it would take away any chance I had of internal peace. I’d be begging the terrorists for ear plugs.

The characters were lifeless and boring and I didn’t care an iota about any of them, much in the same way I don’t give a shit about cardboard.

The only thing I liked was imagining a whole group of people lying face up and motionless on the floor, having conversations while looking at the ceiling. This unique scenario seemed trippy, and I loved thinking about horizontal chit-chat.

Somehow Patchett managed to take the tense out of terrorism, no easy feat! It was pure torture to pick this book up, and I only made it halfway through.

I wanted so much to love this book, and god knows I didn’t want to abandon it. I wanted the reality to be different. I didn’t want my love of Ann Patchett tainted. Because now whenever I think of the sweet State of Wonder, I’ll also think of the sour Bel Canto. Very sad.

Of course Patchett is a skilled writer. The language is eloquent and there is some insight. But seriously, I just didn’t give a damn.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
505 reviews1,479 followers
July 21, 2016
How did Patchett do this? A seemingly horrifying event turned into a mystical one. Where lines of good vs evil are blurred. Where time is suspended.

It's a birthday party gala in South America. The guest of honour, a powerful Japanese figurehead, almost didn't make it himself except for the soprano whose voice he adores. As the final note is sung, the lights go out and the guerrillas enter. The party is hijacked for political reasons but what transpires during the next few months are the unusual relationships that are forged by the beauty of a voice which unites both terrorists and hostages. Where for long moments during this siege, captivity is interrupted and they are a group of people witnessing a main attraction, living it day to day.

Patchett is an artist. She details a portrait in which I bear witness. I searched arias and operas to get a sense of the beauty and passion this music can evoke. I'm in awe and for that I'm rating it a 4⭐️. I am smitten now with you, Patchett, but, I reserve the final star for the ending I wasn't as smitten with.
Profile Image for Danielle.
553 reviews212 followers
August 27, 2009
This is one of my top five favorite books. Bel Canto made me a devoted Patchett fan, although her other work hasn't quite stood up to the high expectations this one set for her. Just to set the scene, I read this book while on a three week trip through Europe. Travelling by train, I had plenty of time to read, but missed a lot of the beautiful countryside (especially of France and Switzerland) because I simply couldn't tear myself away from this book, it was that good. My husband woke up on the train at one point (the ending of the book) to my sobs. I was so overcome I couldn't even tell him what was the matter (he was really worried for a minute there...then he thought I was crazy). I should clarify that I'm not an especially emotional person. I had just formed such a strong attachment to the characters in this book that the ending hit me almost as hard as losing a friend. Plus, it was just so beautifully done that the loss was almost bittersweet.
This book gave me so much to think about that I wanted to grab someone--anyone!--who had read this book and talk it all out with them. Well, that was almost two years ago, so my furor has died down. I need to read it again to write a fair review.
For the time being, though, first I loved the writing. I admire any author who can tell a great story with the words ushering me along rather than tripping me up. Another reviewer referred to the book as "lyrical" and I heartily agree. It was just beautifully done.
Second, such richly imagined characters were a delight to spend time with. I thought each character was fully developed and interesting. Even the minor characters, about whom I received limited information, still felt real. And I got the sense that there was so much more to know about them lurking just below the surface.
Finally, the story was heartbreakingly beautiful. As my waterworks attest, it was very moving, without feeling like my emotions were being made sport of. In the ending, it all just came together for me. "Bel Canto" referring to the beautiful song that was the idyllic life of the hostages and captives. But just like the opera singer's song had to end eventually, their peaceful suspension from reality could not endure. To me, what made the story and the illusion so poignant was the knowledge they had all along that it WOULD end. An audience can't fool itself into thinking a performance will last indefinitely, but perhaps the awareness of the end in sight makes the beauty of the moment all the more valuable. That reference made this story even more meaningful to me. I just loved it.
I gave this book five stars, but it wasn't absolutely perfect. I actually strongly disliked the epilogue. I found it disheartening, somewhat contrived, and generally unecessary. The story would have been better off without it.
In spite of that, this book is everything a great book should be.
UPDATE: Reread in August 2009. I still loved it, and enjoyed the writing, but it wasn't the same experience it was the first time. I wasn't as impressed, as moved, or as eager to share this book with others as I was the first time around. It must have just been the way it hit me at that time in my life. Even without it being the earth-shatteringly awesome book I felt it was before, I still highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,717 followers
May 12, 2017
To me, this book is luminous. Glorious. Magnificent. Perfect. (Well, almost perfect. I'll explain in a moment.)

I first read "Bel Canto" in 2005, and I was so absorbed in the story that I would sneak away from my desk at work just to have a few precious moments with it. The story opens with a renowned opera singer, Roxanne Coss, giving a private performance at the home of a vice president of an unnamed South American country. Several people in the room are already in love with her, and others will fall in love with the sound of her voice.

The moment she's done singing, the room is stormed by guerrilla fighters, and everyone in the home is taken hostage. What follows is a fascinating look at what happens when a group of strangers are forced to live together for weeks. The fighters make demands, a poor Red Cross volunteer acts as intermediary with officers outside, and meanwhile, everyone inside the house tries to get along, despite numerous language barriers.

Which brings me to one of my favorite characters, the translator Gen. Without Gen, the entire story could not have happened, because he was the one who helped people communicate. Gen is constantly in demand, translating from English to Spanish to Russian to Japanese and back to English again.

There are some surprising and emotional attachments that form -- even Gen falls in love! -- and by the end of the book, I was in tears. My only complaint is with the ending, which I won't spoil, but to say I was devastated is an understatement. But given the scenario, you can't really expect a happy ending, can you?

The characters are beautifully drawn, Ann Patchett's writing is gorgeous, and some of the scenes are so vivid that it would make a wonderful film. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves literary fiction. Brava!
Profile Image for Nishat.
27 reviews415 followers
June 23, 2018
Men of great importance were held hostage with a soprano. Until they realized how trivial their existences have been to the world and the world's to them. Men of different countries, men of different taste and language shut their eyes to the same beauty. Terrorists with gun earned sympathy worshipping that beauty only. A priest found his God next to him.

Bel Canto embodies art itself. The book celebrates the love for what is beyond and what is incomparably greater. Our deaths don't define us, neither our birth places. It is always the things we seek. And Ben Canto beautifully explores that.

I wanted to write a book that would be like an opera in its structure, its grandeur, its musicality, its melodrama.

Anne Patchette's carefully woven tale moves from one being to another within a room. And for a confined story such as this, she gives life to a soaring voice. Drawing no line for herself, the abundance of well crafted words and flow of noble emotions in this savage plot, can get overwhelmingly on one's nerves which may as well explain the mixed reaction.

In Bel Canto best human qualities blossom and present the philosophical problem that comes with the idea of every ideal society. With all the contradictions coming from a single room, there's no doubt the room wouldn't stand when the time comes.
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,321 reviews2,142 followers
October 1, 2019
I have read a few of this author's books now and I know what to expect. Perfect prose, well defined characters, a slow rambling story like a stroll in a beautiful park. And more often than not a difficult ending.

Bel Canto demonstrates all of those characteristics. Reading it was a real pleasure and the author did not put a foot wrong literary wise. All of the characters are well defined and by the end they become people you know and some like Gen you really want to meet.

Then there is the ending. Just for once I thought the author was going to get it right. It was traumatic yet expected and almost a relief when it arrived. Then she added an epilogue which was most definitely not required. It was just wrong. I can vaguely see what she was aiming for but it was still wrong.

Four stars for a beautiful book which would have been five if I could just mentally unsee that epilogue!
Profile Image for Brian.
706 reviews355 followers
June 25, 2020
“To think that God heard his name from so many voices.” (4.5 stars)

The ending of “Bel Canto” left me in a bit of a daze for a few minutes. The novel cast a spell so strong, that when the jarring reality of life springs up at the conclusion you can’t help but be a little disoriented.
This is a novel that has been on my radar for years, but I am just now picking it up.
This story, told by an omniscient narrator, follows a hostage situation in the vice presidential palace of an unnamed South American country. The hostages include a world famous opera soprano, and many business and political leaders from various countries. The point of view also considers the guerrillas who take the hostages.
I have never read an Ann Patchett novel before. I will pick her up again! She has a simplicity and lovely finesse with language. I was caught up in the story, but also in the words she used to weave it. With a precise prose that brimmed with clarity Patchett created characters that, even if only a few lines of the text were devoted to them, came across as real people.
I feel like opera gets a lot of negative attention from readers of this text. And opera is important to many of the characters in the book. However, I feel the bigger point is what opera represents to many of the characters in the text. It is a source of life and inspiration. Something that gives joy and generates much power and strong feelings. That is something different for every person alive, and when you realize that you put opera in its proper context in this book, and you can place the love that characters feel for that art in its proper context, and thus appreciate it, and its potency as used in “Bel Canto”.
So many enchanting moments in this book. So many small pleasures. I loved the world it created. I loved the people in that world. So many characters whose small joys I felt as my own. I loved their truth, their pain, and humanity.

“Bel Canto” is something else!
Profile Image for Blair.
134 reviews120 followers
September 25, 2021
Some of you loved it, some of you hated it. I'm leaning towards the latter. I thought it was a good idea poorly executed.
A small South American country throws a lavish birthday party for an important Japanese business executive with high hopes that his electronics company will build a factory to help prop up their ailing economy. The executive, Katsumi Hosokawa only agrees to come because opera diva Roxanne Coss will be performing. A terrorist group invades the party at the vice president's home taking the partygoers hostage. The hostage crisis continues for months. Stockholm Syndrome takes root, hostages develop feelings for the young gun-wielding terrorists, bonds form, relationships bloom. And the language barrier is not an obstacle thanks to the incredible translation skills of Gen Watanabe. And of course the music, ah yes the incredible singing voice of Roxanne Coss becomes a polarizing, transcendent force that beguiles absolutely everyone. No one escapes its wondrous effect. Just once i wanted someone to stand up and shout 'ENOUGH! SHUT THE F*** UP ALREADY!!!
The first 3/4 of the story was boring. Characters in general, were poorly developed (except Katsumi Hosokawa- love that guy) there is little to move the plot forward or hold your interest (the vice president likes to clean. Alot.) and the writing is below average. She's one of those writers that make you think 'hey I can be a writer!!' (I cant)
And the ending, albeit emotional, i thought was predictable. I was hoping for a more
imaginative outcome. The ingredients are all here for a good story, I just think Patchett was hoping it would write itself. It didn't.
And that epilogue, as my 14 year old son would say, was dogwater.
Profile Image for Kim.
286 reviews791 followers
May 13, 2009
I was only 3 when Patty Hearst showed up on TV toting a semi automatic weapon looking bewildered and stylish in a ¾ length leather belted coat. Do I remember this? Hell no, I was three, but later… you know when I was like eight or nine and I would think it was so cool that she was brainwashed---what an interesting word--- and I’d have Barbie kidnap Skipper and force her to drop her frumpy ways and really live the lie…, I mean life. Sorry.

So, what does that have to do with this? Well, I guess you could say that I was intrigued with the whole idea of Stockholm Syndrome way before I knew it had a name. Just imagine becoming emotionally attached to people that held you hostage. Isn’t that a bit fucked up? Duh. (As my 4 year old would say)

So, Bel Canto, while the characters and events are mostly fictionalized, was based on an actual hostage situation in Peru in 1996. Where 72 people men were held up in the Japanese Ambassador’s home for 126 days. I must have been living under a rock, because I do not remember this… you think that something like this would have stuck, you know? I’m sure I was too wrapped up in my glee that Judge Judy was now being syndicated. Whoo.

Can you imagine living with terrorists for 4 and ½ months? My god, I can’t imagine that the same level of fear is maintained. I would think that you would start to develop a relationship with these kids (yes, they were basically children) and start to feel that this is what your life has become. And so it goes in Bel Canto , these characters, hostages and terrorists are introduced systematically throughout the beginning of the ordeal and Patchett does a good job of fleshing them out and getting us attached. To a point. I think that this is one of those books where your opinion of it will vary depending on where you are in your life. I can see this book leaving different impressions on someone who maybe has just found new love and someone who is jaded by relationships. Moreover, I think that this could determine just how much you liked this book. I’ve teetered between 2, 3 and 4 starts in just the few days since I’ve finished it.

This is most definitely a chick lit book. You’ve got the Soprano who has men falling at her feet (almost literally) every time she belts one out, you’ve got the young idealists who, of course, are beautiful and destined for a tragic outcome… and you’ve got the older, more elegant group of men, pining for love lost and all that. Something for every taste, I suppose.

The appeal of a good book is how long and hard it stays with you. When I finished this, I was eager to share the story with my friends and family but as the days wore on, the shine was lost and I started to see the faults and the hackneyed plot. I miss the first day when I was caught up in the story and lamenting the outcome.

Why can’t it always be like that?

Profile Image for Aaron.
124 reviews35 followers
August 7, 2007
A novel about a hostage crisis that goes wrong -- with very sexy results, Bel Canto might have been a better read if at some point Patchett did anything to acknowledge the plot's ridiculousness. Instead, she treats the readers to vague social commentary about South America, multiple nobel savage tropes, and a crisis situation where people do have sex, but only after first taking the time to fall in love. It's also somewhat about opera, so allow me the metaphor that Bel Canto hits all the obvious notes with competence but without ever risking enough to engage the audience.

Not to be a pure hater, I did love the hell out of the cover art.
Profile Image for Michele.
Author 5 books99 followers
June 26, 2007
Stay With This One. It's Worth It.

Bel Canto is one of those novels that is good on so many levels, it's taken me days after finishing it to put my thoughts about the story and the characters into words. This work is as lyrical and dramatic as any opera, and the word "brilliant" isn't excessive to describe the talent of author, Ann Patchett. I wondered how she came up with such a remarkable and unique story, but then learned she'd been influenced by actual events involving a hostage situation in Peru. Patchett goes far beyond the headlines and enters the minds of the players on both sides. It's a fascinating story and a rewarding and entertaining character study.

The first 100+ pages were slow going as the stage is set; however, the ennui I experienced while reading helped me relate to the monotony of daily life experienced by the guests of a party, who'd been taken hostage in a failed attempt to kidnap the President of a South American country. The country, unnamed in the story, is a developing, Spanish-speaking nation. The party, hosted by the Vice President, is a birthday party for a Japanese businessman. It is filled with an International guest list, including the famous and enormously talented opera soprano, Roxanne Coss. Virtually everyone in the room, both hostage and captor, falls in love with her during the four-month siege. The story picks up speed when two distinct love stories begin, one between Roxanne and one of her admirers, and another, which focuses on the second-most sought-after talent possessed by a multi-lingual interpreter, a Japanese named Gen. Each, along with several intriguing subplots, led to the building of a unique story and ultimately satisfying climax.

The ending comes quickly and shook me to my core. It was not unexpected and yet it still made me cry. And then there's a surprise, which after a lot of thought, made perfect sense. Brava Ms. Patchett. My highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Sally.
321 reviews16 followers
May 6, 2008
I just couldn't do it! The premise was great, the writing was swallowable, but the story! The painful, painful story. There was no character that I truly cared about, and when the "hostages" became "free" or whatever I threw the book across the room and there it has remained ever since. A hefty dust bunny now resides atop. I'd rather read Better Homes and Gardens than finish this one.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,079 reviews917 followers
October 26, 2019
High 4*

I'm patting myself on the back for trying this audiobook again. The first time around, I just couldn't get into it - I put it down to not being in the right mood, although it was puzzling as I adore Opera and I'm keen on Latin anything and I had enjoyed Patchett's writing before.

For what it's worth, I wasn't as enchanted with Anna Fields' delivery. I hope this audiobook is reissued, with a better production - I mean you have opera, you have all kind of languages, bullets - it could be an enhanced experience. Whenever a certain aria was mentioned, I found myself singing it, although it hurt my own ears, it's torture for those who hear me. I did get used to the narrator, as one does. As the novel progressed and we got to know some of the characters, I was completely taken with the story. I could easily picture the location, the characters, their interactions. I know this has been made into a movie and I'm kind of desperate to get my hands on it, see what they've done with it.

So what is this about?
In an unidentified Latin American country, a group of insurgents assail the vice-president's house where a big party was taking place. They were hoping to kidnap the president, who was absent, therefore they find themselves in a situation they didn't prepare for. After releasing the women, the kids and the workers, the insurgents and the fifty-nine others are locked up inside a beautiful mansion while the police were waiting outside. The inhabitants are people from many parts of the world: Japanese, Italians, Germans, Russians, locals, and the renowned American soprano, Roxanne Coss.

My favourite characters were the Japanese men: a rich businessman, who's obsessed with opera, Katsumi Hosokawa, and his interpreter, Gen Watanabe. They were classy, dignified and very intelligent.

I appreciated that Patchett chose to portray most of the terrorists as more than just jungle rats.
To have even the most uneducated brought to their knees by the power of opera was music to my ears and heart.

As it's been established, Patchett writes characters incredibly well. She's at her best in this novel.
Bel Canto is probably my favourite of hers, so far anyway.
Profile Image for Brandice.
909 reviews
October 9, 2017
Bel Canto is the second book I've read by Ann Patchett. Commonwealth was the first and I loved it. I'd been wanting to read Bel Canto for a long time. I liked some of the book but there were parts of it that really seemed to drag on and I had no problem setting it aside at intervals. I felt like the action came very! late in the story. The ending was fine, however, I wasn't thrilled (or even kind of pleased) with the epilogue. For all the hype I'd hear about this book, it was somewhat of a letdown. That said, I liked the overall story enough to want to finish it.
Profile Image for Adam.
253 reviews212 followers
April 15, 2008
I read this book because my girlfriend--who loved it--recommended it to me. She also implied that I could stand to girly up my reading list a little, which is probably fair. Man does not live by novelizations of '70s cop movies and '80s slasher movie tie-ins alone.

Anyway, I thought it was good. The characters were all likable and the story was engaging, if wholly improbable (Bel Canto could just as easily have been titled The Lighter Side of Stockholm Syndrome). My main problem with it was the writing style, which I really didn't care for. Each sentence is perfectly crafted, and would make any MFA writing professor thrilled, but therein lies the problem. The writing is so well-crafted sentence by sentence that it ends up being somewhat characterless and a little dull in large portions. The prose in Bel Canto almost seemed as if it was written to specifically defy any editorial criticisms. It does this with aplomb, but the problem is that it never takes any risks either.
Profile Image for Karen.
1,389 reviews200 followers
September 2, 2023
This was another one of our favorite authors with our Library Book Discussion group. I am now bringing my review to Goodreads.

Did you know that this book was actually based on a true story?

Set in South America, readers find themselves in a large room filled with mostly affluent bureaucrats and CEO’s that are suddenly taken hostage by terrorists during a beautiful soprano opera performance by the book’s female lead, Roxanne Coss.

The story remains in that same setting, and the hostages are held captive for over 4 months. So what was intended to be just hours, turned into days and then months of standoff.


Patchett shows readers exactly how universal humanity is...

Our cares, our fears, our talents, our values, our love.

Where what once was terrorists vs hostages now blurs and becomes a giant group of humans, together.

Are we now seeing friendships forming? Maybe even romance?


Are we experiencing Stockholm Syndrome? (feelings of trust or affection felt in many cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.)

Are the hostages learning to adjust to this new normal – finding ways to appreciate their spouses better?

And the terrorists – some were teenagers with minds and talents – being used in this heartless way – could we humanize them?

And then there is Roxanne Coss.

Her voice and her music touches everybody. There is something magical and lyrical about her voice that seems to calm everyone.

The beautiful, tender, lyrical language. The character development.

And then…

What was the point of that epilogue? Everything was going so well until then. Is that really how you are going to end this? I’m not sure I could accept it.
Profile Image for L A i N E Y (will be back).
395 reviews693 followers
October 17, 2018
[[notes]] I just watched the movie and I was kind of shocked how it made me a whole lot more emotional than reading the book itself. Julianne Moore made this story feels believable for me. Splendid casting.


This book was so weird.
Made even weirder by that epilogue.

This is the first book I read that I did not like the epilogue.

I just didn't feel 'danger' or 'passion' for that matter. It didn't jump off the page for me. I wouldn't have finished it at all if I wasn't ill with the flu. You know, lethargy and all. That was the only reason I didn't mark this as dnf.

The voices in this had this flat tone to them which was strange considering a large chunk of the book talked about singing and opera and passion. I think at times it veered into this sort of fatasy land. Maybe it's the author’s real intention to show us how Stockholm Syndrome felt? Possibly though I'm not sure. I just cannot really see how everyone could love opera that much. Because everyone in this LOVED opera THAT MUCH.

It felt like the author didn't follow through and just left a lot of things out. I mean a lot!. Disoriented was a fitting description of how i felt after turning the last page. I was actually laughing but then I have a tendency to laugh when things got too preposterous. I wouldn't say it was that in this case but it got pretty close.

Of course, since I already knew the outcome anyway, the author told us early on.

The end of the hostage situation and the epilogue have this gaping hole left open. And there's a disconnect between those two events that I wish we got to get a glimpse of, if not a chapter.

I still to this day, a week later, wonder why the author didn't just show us.
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
June 18, 2008
This is a weird and beautiful book about machine guns, chopping onions, and opera singers. Check your disbelief at the door and enjoy the language. I don't care for the ending -- but it was worth it anyway. Lovely writing.

***wondering why all my reviews are five stars? Because I'm only reviewing my favorite books -- not every book I read. Consider a novel's presence on my Goodreads bookshelf as a hearty endorsement. I can't believe I just said "hearty." It sounds like a stew.****
Profile Image for Mark  Porton.
416 reviews366 followers
July 9, 2021
This was an awful story.

I loved the Dutch House, which I am now beginning to feel was entirely because of Tom Hanks' narration. Next I read State of Wonder which was an ordinary experience and now this - Bel Canto which was a real chore.

The characters were paper thin, unrealistic and not well developed at all. What made this experience particularly difficult was the impossibly unreal storyline.

Stockholm Syndrome love, inter hostage relationships, combined with chess, music lessons, concerts and outside ball games. This all created a trifle of far fetched, terribly written nonsense. Served up with lashings of over sentimentality.

About halfway through I realised this was going to be an unforgettable experience. It was.

1 Star
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
January 28, 2021
This was my third Patchett novel - I have also read the more recent Commonwealth and The Dutch House, and although I have great respect for her craft as a writer and her books are easy to read, I don't think she'll ever be a personal favourite writer. Like those books, this one has many endearing elements and is very well written, but for me the whole framing scenario was a little too implausible and romantic, and the ending a little too contrived.
Profile Image for Jessica.
564 reviews135 followers
March 26, 2008
Exquisite. Patchett does two really remarkable things here. Well, she does many remarkable things, but two I'd particularly like to point out:
1. When an author loves her characters too much, the reader can often tell. Situations and descriptions seem contrived, and there is a veneer of (usually unintentional) dishonesty. But in Bel Canto, it's clear that Patchett is in love with her characters, yet she is able to remain objective and in control. Her role as the omniscient narrator allows her to travel in and out of various character's minds, and she does so with grace and assurance. Each emotion feels true to the character, and each character feels distinct and real. Patchett's gentle yet powerful language moves around the room and through the diverse characters easily and intentionally.
2. How often do authors rely on villains and extremes to make their stories stand out? What struck me on completing Bel Canto was that the characters are in a situation that strips them down to their essentials and forces each of them to come to know their true selves. What Patchett does that feels almost revolutionary is that for every character, from terrorist to CEO, when they see their true selves what they see there is goodness and love for others. How amazing it is to think that we are so much better than we know!

Tragedy is foreshadowed from the beginning, yet the book is really about beautiful moments and realizations. When cut off from the outside world for a few months, both the captors and the hostages are free to discover love and other talents. The bizarre nature of the situation, coupled with the endless stretches of time in one place, allows for people to connect across cultures and individual variances. I'm making this sound cheesy, but it's not at all. Even with such an improbable premise, nothing is maudlin or exaggerated, no character is a caricature -- and that is a real accomplishment.
Profile Image for Amanda.
336 reviews64 followers
March 2, 2009
There is nothing I can say. I don't even know how.

Instead, I will veil my head, lament the deaths of each person loved since the beginning of time, and cry tears of unsurpassed desolation in the hopes that tomorrow, the sun will shine on my face and god will see me standing there.
Profile Image for Robert Beveridge.
2,402 reviews162 followers
January 23, 2008
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (Harper, 2001)

I have spent quite a while mulling this over, and have finally come to the conclusion that, patterned after Greek tragic opera or not, I can't forgive Ann Patchett for the climax of this novel. Much of that has to do with the beginning of the novel; I'd have been inclined to be more forgiving had the first hundred pages not moved at a snail's pace. But the book finally picked up, everything was going along swimmingly, and then, suddenly, bam-the most predictable possible climax.

The story is based on accounts of the guerrilla takeover of the Peruvian embassy in 1992, but Patchett moves the action to another, unnamed, South American country and adds a few extra ingredients into the mix. In Patchett's story, opera singer Roxane Coss has been lured to the embassy for the birthday party of a wealthy Japanese industrialist whom the country hopes will build a factory there. During the festivities, the guerrillas invade, and a hostage situation begins. It drags on, and soon the strict militarism with which the siege begins evolves into a more relaxed system, where the line between terrorist and hostage begins to blur.

It's after that line begins to blur that the book really takes hold. The original three chapters, that describe the scene and introduce us to most of the main characters, are painfully slow. Patchett hits her stride, and the book takes off. For the middle two hundred pages, it's easy to see why the book won the Orange Prize and was shortlisted for so many others.

Then comes the climax. My initial reaction is that it was the biggest letdown I'd had in a novel in a number of years, and that's saying something. After some discussion, I tried to accept it as the pace and events of the book being modeled on Greek tragic opera (where such clichés as the climax of this novel were coined). I don't know enough about Greek tragic opera to really make a judgment one way or the other as to the accuracy of Patchett's patterning. I do know that in modern reinterpretations of older works (think Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres for an excellent example), what we often change is what has become clichéd in the years since the work was originally written. Such is not the case here, and it certainly kept me from enjoying the book as a whole as much as I otherwise would have.

Great middle. Mediocre beginning. Awful ending. Still, the hundred pages that are worth saving are remarkable, and worth the price of admission. ** ½
Profile Image for Nandakishore Mridula.
1,255 reviews2,297 followers
September 15, 2019
There are certain books which start with a bang and drag you in. And before you know, you are in the midst of the story. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one such book.

It is a birthday party in honour of Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese tycoon, in the Vice Presidential mansion in an unnamed Latin American country, whose government hopes he will invest there. Mr. Hosokawa, however, has come only to hear the famous lyric soprano Roxane Coss perform live - he has been an opera lover all his life, and a fan of this famous singer from Chicago ever since he first heard her. At the conclusion of the performance, the lights go off and when they come back on, the party find themselves hostages of La Familia de Martin Suarez, a revolutionary organisation which are dime a dozen in most of these banana republics. They have come for the president, who was to have attended the function - but who cancelled at the last minute and decided to stay at home to watch his favourite soap opera. So the terrorists are in a quandary. Ultimately they decide to keep the more famous and influential of the hostages and let the others go. These number forty - thirty-nine men and one woman, Roxanne Coss.

What follows is the surreal existence of fifty-eight people - forty hostages and eighteen terrorists - in the palatial villa of the Vice President, Ruben Iglesias. Apart from him, there is Hosokawa and Roxane; Hosokawa's interpreter Gen Watanabe; the French Ambassador Simon Thibault; A trio of hot-blooded Russian dignitaries; the priest Arguedas, who even after being released refuses to go as he feels his duty is with the prisoners; Kato, an employee in Hosokawa's organisation who finds hidden talents within himself as an accompanist to Roxane. Among the revolutionaries, there are the generals led by the shingle-infected Benjamin; the brainy Ishmael, who learns chess by watching; the talented Cesar, who is accepted as a pupil by Roxane; and Carmen, the girl soldier, who wants to be taught to read and write by Gen Watanabe. As the days go by and weeks stretch into months, the boundaries between captive and captor become blurred and it just becomes a seething mass of humanity trying to make sense of life at close quarters, in a suspended-animation-like existence where Roxane's singing is the only constant, the fulcrum around which their lives revolve.

Everyone is in love with Roxane. Not as a person, or even as a woman; but as a symbol of the divine art which flows through her. Everyone want to possess her, be her - whether it is the millionaire Hosokawa, the government functionary Fyodorov, padre Arguedas, the girl revolutionary Carmen or even the kid Cesar who gets an erection when she sings. It is not coincidental that the novel opens with the sentence "When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her." This accompanist, who has been besotted with her and has been forcing his unwanted attentions on her from the moment they got on the plane, is a diabetic dies due to lack of insulin on the second day of captivity - as if prompting others to step into the vacuum. When she says she cannot live without singing, Father Arguedas arranges to get sheet music for her, and Kato jumps in as accompanist. From then on, life in the hostage camp is a musical journey.

Apart from Roxane, the one character who holds the novel together is Gen Watanabe. In his capacity of translator, he becomes the tongue and ears of the imprisoned tower of Babel. As the days go by, the languages mix and meld and Gen becomes not only a translator - but a teacher too: most importantly, a teacher to young Carmen in the china cupboard at two o'clock in the morning - of Spanish, English and the pleasures of love.

Language and music form the twin threads around which the narrative is woven. In Sanskrit, there is a couplet which says: "Music and literature are two breasts of the Goddess Saraswati: one, all sweetness from top to bottom; the other, nectar to thought." I was reminded of this throughout my reading experience.

There is a type of movie in which the protagonists meet, interact, form and break relationships in the space of a limited amount of hours, in a gathering where they are forced into close quarters - Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game being the classic example. Here, the Vice President learns the pleasures of housework; the French Ambassador relearns his culinary skills; Cesar and Kato unleash their inner musicians; and Hosokawa and Roxane, and Gen and Carmen, fall in love. However, the narrative here is anything but realistic: it seems poised on the threshold of magical realism, a nod to which is slyly given in the form of one of the revolutionaries reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, and complaining it would take him "a hundred years to complete it."

Being an ignoramus about Western classical music, I was totally lost about what the title meant and had to Google. This is what I got.
Bel canto, (Italian: “beautiful singing”) style of operatic singing that originated in Italian singing of polyphonic (multipart) music and Italian courtly solo singing during the late 16th century and that was developed in Italian opera in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Using a relatively small dynamic range, bel canto singing was based on an exact control of the intensity of vocal tone, a recognition of the distinction between the “diapason tone” (produced when the larynx is in a relatively low position) and the “flute tone” (when the larynx is in a higher position), and a demand for vocal agility and clear articulation of notes and enunciation of words.

- Encyclopaedia Britannica
Though I got only a vague idea from the above, I feel it fits the "vocal tone" of the novel perfectly; with its surreal setting, its cacophony of voices, and its accompaniment of music. The prose is like Ernest Hemingway and P. G. Wodehouse collaborating.

A wonderful read!
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