Annalisa's Reviews > Bel Canto

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
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Jun 12, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: historical-fiction, psychology, based-on-true-story

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.
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Reading Progress

June 12, 2008 – Shelved
May 22, 2010 – Started Reading
May 23, 2010 –
page 69
21.7% "I'm not liking how little this book is about Peru (not even named and when described wrong) and how much it drones about opera. I guess I should have known from the title."
May 29, 2010 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
May 29, 2010 – Finished Reading
August 21, 2010 – Shelved as: psychology
May 31, 2016 – Shelved as: based-on-true-story

Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan I couldn't get into this book at all, but I don't think I made it quite as far as page 200; I don't remember.

And, I do like opera. And I knew it was based on a true story but at the time I didn't know the non-fiction details.

A friend of mine (who is a singer/classical music) recommended this to me, and I got the feeling she partially did like it because she understood about the music. She also said what you say: she liked what happened in the relationships.

Sometimes I get really irritated when true stories are made into novels, and I don't know what is true and what is fictional. I don't think I'm willing to read at least 200 pages (2/3 the book) again to see if I might like this.

Great review though, Annalisa!

Annalisa Thanks, Lisa. I do like opera, some, but not as much as Patchett, and there are some operas that I don't like. I'd much rather see an orchestra perform.

I have the same issues with true stories. This is a dumb example but I remember watching the movie Titanic and at the end when she says only so many people survived, I thought "if a fictional character is taking up part of that list, who are they excluding." Whenever I read historical fiction, I always get online afterwards so I can figure out what was real and what was created. I prefer when they are closer to the actual events.

I think this is a book for people who like writing more than people who want a good story. And I like writing, but I still thought most of it was boring. A lot of that could be my own displeasure with where she took the book, but from the other reviews I've read, I don't think so.

message 3: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Yes, I was bored, and I don't get bored easily.

I do the same thing: look up what's fact and what's fiction when I've read a historical fiction book.

message 4: by Annalisa (last edited May 30, 2010 11:49PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Annalisa Okay, my grace period for overcompensating my rating to make up for my personal issues is over. Yes there was a little I liked toward the end, but as you say, the writing may be good but the story is still dull and she just didn't care enough about the real story and the real people and the real country. I have a feeling that overtime, my own need to like this story with what I'll probably remember as superimposed characters of people I know will fade and what I'll be left with is Patchett's lack of interest and research. I'm glad I finished the story because I hated it less at the end, but I have a feeling in the future this one will get downgraded to a one star.

Noel Hi Annalisa - you put into very eloquent words what I felt when reading the book. I couldn't get over her talking about "this godforsaken country." I found it so incredibly disrespectful of an entire nation which is many things, but godforsaken it is not. I read this book a few years ago, but it still rattles me. I wonder if the author ever traveled to Peru? I doubt it.

Annalisa I can almost guarantee you that she has not been to Peru. Having lived there for seven years, there were things in the book that anyone who had visited the country could see as wrong in the setting. I think she never named Peru because she didn't want to research the country. Whether that's laziness on her part or superiority that Peru isn't important enough, I can't say, but either way it bothered me.

Noel I vote for arrogance.

message 8: by Aurora (new)

Aurora I really thought she didn't name the country because she didn't want to defame any particular coutnry. Not wanting to have to research the country might have also been part of it...

message 9: by tina (new) - added it

tina I completely agree with your review. I thought Patchett was going for 100 years of Solitude by not naming Peru. I think Daniel Alarcon might have done that too more recently (could be wrong). the embassy takeover was very meaningful. To use the embassy takeover as a gimmick to talk about opera, love in captivity and the rest felt like the American of the 1950s. Disappointing.

Annalisa Thanks, Tina. Part of what makes Marquez so artistic is his settings and she missed the mark, widely. If Marquez had failed to name a place, at least the setting would have felt South American (but I'd still reserve the right to be bugged at Colombian's sense of superiority over Peruvians :).

message 11: by Emma (new) - rated it 5 stars

Emma Glaisher I love this book with a passion, but I can see where you're coming from in your review. Having no connection with Peru I'm ashamed to say I just regarded it as a convenient platform for a wonderful story. Patchett is not interested in politics. Or at least this novel is not about politics. It's about what might (and probably wouldn't...) happen if this disparate bunch of people were thrown together. It is really the 'situation' that attracted her, not the reality. I still love the book but can see your objections! Good review.

Annalisa Emma,
Thank you. I can see how someone would like the book. If she had done some research to get the setting right I would have felt better, or at the least credited the events in her notes instead of talk about opera, something other than completely ignore the source of her story. I guess I feel that if this had happened in some place more important it would have been important enough for her to include, but it shouldn't matter.

message 13: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Having read this review, I am more confirmed in my disgust with Patchett's work. See my review of State of Wonder, which duplicates many of the flaws you bring up, Annalisa.

Charlotte Annalisa, I had no idea! This is shocking.

If Patchett had at least written a proper epilogue, sketching the real events that took place in Peru, this novel wouldn't seem so dismissive and self-serving. (Self-serving because the punchline is "Art/the soaring human spirit is our common salvation," as she exemplifies in both literary and musical terms; dismissive because real people died--and without such salvation.)

This is something Patchett should be interviewed about. I'd love to hear her rationale.

Now I'm ready to downgrade my stars on Bel Canto. I like the warm-fuzzy 'everyone is special/art conquers all' motif, but, alas...

Charlotte Hi, y'all. Here's an interview w/Patchett where she (barely) addresses the Peruvian hostage crisis. She is not dismissive, exactly, but is so focused on her own grand fictional themes that she sees no problem with her point of view.

message 16: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. a book that elicits such a strong reaction is itself by definition no less than a 3

Nigel Er, she wasn't writing about Peru. If she was, she would have said "Peru". I'm not a fan of opera but I was captivated by this book and its emotions. I've just read it for the second time.

message 18: by Annalisa (last edited Jan 23, 2013 12:47PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Annalisa Nigel,
I realize she wasn't writing about Peru. That's my point. She used an actual event that was very traumatic for that country and didn't care enough to do any research to even get the setting right, nor did she give the actual events any credit. It's not the first or the last book she's done this with and I'm convinced I should never read another one of books or I will only be more disgusted.

Not in my book. On occasion a book elicits a strong negative reaction by author intention to make one think and in such a case I wouldn't necessarily give it a low rating. That is not the case here. Books that illicit strong negative reactions by an author's short fallings receive 1 star from me. There were a few redeeming graces that justified 2 stars originally from me, but the more I think about it, the more I think according to my own rating system, it deserves 1 star. Since I often fluctuate the stars between 1 and 2, I've updated my review to reflect 1.5 stars, but I can't give it much more.

Thank you for the article! I saw your comment when I was on my phone and thought I'd read it when I was on the computer and spaced it so I am just getting to it.

"But it's the reason that I call the country "The Host Country" instead of Peru, because I thought by the time this book comes out no one is going to remember this. Tragedy, in my experience, is always replaced by tragedy. We hold one crisis close to our heart until the next crisis comes along and it obliterates the one before. So we tend not to remember things that happened six years ago in South America."

I don't even know where to begin. South America may not be important enough to you to remember tragedy that happens there six years later, but I guarantee that, just like tragedy in the US still affects you years later, it still affects the millions of people that live there. And they are not "no one."

message 19: by S. (new) - rated it 3 stars

S. Annalisa, fair enough. one of the good things about the Goodreads site, moreover, is that I can see that our reading tastes differ so much we'll never have a huge argument about this or any other book. i will note, however, having accepted and finished various writing contracts throughout the past ten years, that producing a book is a pretty epic achievement. Patchett provides me with three or four hours of escapism, in a slightly unreal, (and agreed) somewhat insensitive thought-space, for the $5 or whatever i paid at the used bookstore. i wasn't blown away, but I don't feel ripped off. to that end, I value the existence of this book.

Annalisa I totally understand why people liked this book. It's well written and it had some beautiful moments. I thought it was unnecessarily slow in the beginning (I never thought a terrorist takeover could be so unexciting) but once I got into it, I did enjoy several things about it. If I did not have such a personal connection to Peru, it might not have even bothered me, but it ate away at me so that all these years later that is the impression that is left, not the things I enjoyed. That's why I write reviews instead of just give ratings, so people can see what about a book I loved or hated. If that information is useful to someone or touches a chord of agreement, then great. If not, there are a lot of other reviews with which to balance it. Except on a few occasions, I've never thought that because I loved or hated a book it should be universally loved or hated. I have no issue with 5-star reviews of this book (or any book I didn't like). A reader's relationship with a book is entirely personal, balanced against their own history. I will agree that judged against the sea of novels, most of which will never see the light of day, this, and most published novels, deserve a whopping 5 stars.

Elyse Interesting review. I just finished it. I 'did' enjoy 'the drama' (inside that house) ---the relationship developement of the people -- yet I was having mixed feelings --(with questions along the way) ---Why was this story set in South America? With very little development of the country? I kept thinking something else--(ok, I laughed about this part in bed wit my husband) --- but it was hard to believe that these people could be held hostage (the way they were), by 'kids' for weeks on end --
however --I'm aware I'm reading this in 2013 with things I watch in the news --
I 'did' enjoy the book though -- I liked the flow of the story --like the flow of running water --I was part of the undercurrent engulfed in submersion

message 22: by Annalisa (last edited Feb 28, 2013 09:13AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Annalisa Elyse,
Sorry it took me so long to respond. My internet's been down. I did enjoy the relationships too. It took me about 2/3 of the book to get into the story, but by the end I enjoyed some aspects of it. I originally gave my review 3 stars for that, but that the major flaw of not researching a story based on actual events was too much for me to give it anything but 2 stars and lowered it. Now I go back and forth between 1 and 2 stars. For my system 2 is a majorly flawed story with potential and 1 a book that upset me. It's both for me, which honestly the lack of research wouldn't have upset me so much if I hadn't lived so much of my life there, but it would still be a 2-star read for me even then.

Elyse Given your history ---I can understand your reaction --You had a larger context of vision (hands on experience than many of us).

Have you read "State of Wonder". I own the book ---but haven't read it yet. It sits...a sits...and sits....
lol (one day)

Annalisa No. Given Patchett's history of not researching her settings I've been hesitant to try her again, but it has a lot of very good reviews from trusted friends and she is a skilled writer... maybe someday.

Elyse I had like the book 'Run', by Patchett. The story-line of "State of Wonder' sounds great ---
but I have had friends say that HATED IT ---and friends who say they LOVED IT. (I've heard tons of wide ranging reviews)....
which has me at least 'curious'.

Annalisa Those strong clashing reviews usually do :).

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