Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: May 2001
ISBN: 9780060838720
Source: Library (for book group)

Bel Canto

This is a story about hostages taken by a terrorist group in an unnamed South American country.  Among the party are a famous soprano opera singer and a Japanese business man, whose birthday they were celebrating, a translator, a young priest, a French diplomat, and many other foreign dignitaries.  The ensuing standoff shows what kinds of unlikely friendships and alliances can arise between terrorist and hostage.

Things I Liked:
The writing in this novel is really superb.  I love how the phrases flow and how they are beautiful without seeming to notice it or having to try.  The story seems to glide along effortlessly and things just happen now and then, while we watch from a distance.  It was a very different reading experience for me.  The story is hard to want to read, because you know that the ending is inevitable, but you want things to turn out differently.  It was very interesting to watch how people changed.  They are thrown into this situation and the people adapt differently, but I think they are all very changed in the end.  It is a slow, methodical, and definitely psychological story - more about what people think than what they do.  Here's some loveliness in small doses:

"It was during that performance of Rigoletto that opera imprinted itself on Katsumi Hosokawa, a message written on the pink undersides of his eyelids that he read to himself while he slept. Many years later, when everything was business, when he worked harder than anyone in a country whose values are structured on hard work, he believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music." p15 (I read the large print edition, so page numbers may be different)
"Their eyes clouded over for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all.  They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly, but also for the failure of their plans.  All of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear." p266-267
"It was impossible to say that her singing had improved, but there as something in her interpretation of the lines that had shifted almost imperceptibly.  She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room." p348
"Every now and then she wouldn't bring out the book at all.  She would say she was tired.  She would say that so much beauty hurt her.  I remember feeling almost frantic, such a dependency I had come to feel for those paintings.  But it was the rest from it, the waiting, that made us love the book so madly.  I could have had one life, but instead I had another because of this book my grandmother protected." p 378
Things I Didn't Like:
I had a really hard time liking anyone in the story.  I think we are supposed to feel for the characters, but the way it is written, I felt very detached from anyone.  The only one I remotely liked was Gen.  While the writing, as I mentioned, was great, the style turned me off.  We wandered from one character to the next without much transition.  Often, I had to look at the start of the paragraph to figure out who she was talking about now.  Honestly, I wasn't that thrilled by the story.  It took a long time developing and the end was abrupt, quick, and depressing.  Expected it to be that way, but still.  I think discussing it, hearing the reasons some people liked it, and learning more about the background story made it more enjoyable for me, so yeah for book groups!

The style and even the writing reminded me of Little Bee by Chris Cleave

s-factor: !@#
not so much in number as in strength

mrg-factor: XXX
again, not very many, but quite descriptive

v-factor: ->->
not often, but pretty violent

Overall rating: ***

I know there are a lot of people who adored this book.  Feel free to tell me why.


If you buy through my Amazon linkage, I will get a very small percentage


  1. I am one of the people that enjoyed this book, and I think I liked it because of the relationships that developed under the circumstances. With the terrorists and language barriers I found it interesting how everything evolved. I did enjoy your review because I like to hear different opinions.

  2. I didn't/couldn't finish this book, if that gives you any indication if I liked it or not. I remember being turned off by the premise -- embassy hostages/opera singers -- it just didn't work for me.

  3. I like this book a lot! :) I was completely attached to Gen and Carmen.

  4. Jo-Jo, thanks. I enjoy hearing other opinions too, especially when I don't like something lots of folks liked!

    Gerbera, I am not sure I'd have finished it if it wasn't for book group. I think I'm glad I got through it though...

    Suey, it was good to have positive opinions at book group. And, yes, I am posting this a month late. Sigh.

  5. Melissa, I am one who loved this book, too, (although it's a while anck since I read it ...) and I remember being really interested in all the characters and engaged by them, but another thing I recall is the humor and humanity, despite the terribleness of the situation. In that way Bel Canto reminded me a little of the best writing of Louis de Bernières.

  6. I think I'll have to read this one again sometime, since so many folks just loved it! Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me. I'm not even remembering any humor at all, so I definitely think I missed something :)


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