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Author: Ann Patchett
Publication date: 2001
Publisher: HarperCollins Publisher
*Maybe the private life wasn't forever. Maybe everyone got it for a little while and then spent the rest of their lives remembering.*
Kidnappers storm an international gathering housed by a poor Latin American country to promote foreign trade. Unfortunately their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap. The takeover settles into a siege, bringing together an unlikely assortment of hostages, including a beautiful American opera diva, a Japanese CEO who is her biggest fan, and his unassuming translator, Gen. Two couples, complete opposites, fall in love, and a horrific imprisonment is transformed into an unexpected heaven on earth.
Bel Canto is Ann Patchett's fourth novel and its ingenious plot is based on real events: the Lima crisis in 1996 during which the Japanese embassy was taken over. After the first chapter where the takeover is described, we expect a book full of suspense and political themes. What a surprise when we discover how the story actually goes on. The author focuses mainly on the characters, their feelings, how they react to being hostages, how they organise their lives together and their relationships. Instead of the thriller that such an event would naturally lead to, the reader discovers a subtle psychological novel that puts together comedy, romanticism, tragedy, and a little bit of suspense.
The siege gives the opportunity to the characters to evolve more rapidly than they would in the real word, first of all because nobody else is admitted in their small community and because they are forced to live together. The main characters are clearly Mr Hosokawa, a rich Japanese CEO, Gen, his translator, Roxane Coss, a famous opera singer, and Carmen, one of the terrorist, but they are supported by a wide range of people. Ann Patchett uses stereotypes, which brings humour to the novel and shows the differences of culture between the different countries represented by the guests.
As most of them are foreigners, communication is difficult. This is the reason why Gen has such an important part in the book: as a translator, he is polyglot and so everybody uses him to communicate. It is an ingenious strategy to subtly let the reader know about everybody's thoughts.
After a few chapers already, we notice that the situation has completely turned around: the hostages enjoy their captivity and want the situation to last forever and the terrorists cannot escape after their mission failed and start to enjoy the situation as well. As the story goes on, the rules fade away and routine settles into their lives. The relationships develop between the terrorists and hostages and some of the characters find love. Pure and intense love that they would probably not have found in the outside world.
Music is another important theme. As we have a famous opera singer in the house, everything is linked to music. The reader discovers a rich world of operas and songs of which the author demonstrates the importance in everybody's life.
The end happens quickly - maybe a little too quickly even - but with no real surprise, as we know from the beginning how it is going to end up. However, an epilogue gives us perspectives to think about and a quick overview of the main themes that have been dealt with in the book.
I recommend this novel to all readers interested in psychology of the characters and to those who want to see a political affair from a different angle. The plot is interesting, the characters well developped and Ann Patchett's style is extremely enjoyable to read.