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Ann Patchett – Bel Canto

April 21, 2008

54. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001)

Length: 318 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction

Started: 20 April 2008
Finished: 21 April 2008

Summary: Terrorists break into a party being given by the vice president of a small Latin American country, hoping to kidnap the president. However, the president is not there, and so the terrorists wind up taking everyone inside hostage. Among the hostages are Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese CEO, his translator Gen, and Roxane Coss, the world’s most famous opera soprano. As the standoff drags on without hope of resolution, the relationships between the hostages, and between the hostages and their captors slowly starts to shift, revealing new tensions, new loves, and new dangers to their fragile society.

Review: I kept getting recommended this novel because of how much I like Barbara Kingsolver’s writing, and while I think I can see how the connection gets made, it’s not one I would have called up on my own. There are some similar themes in each of their writing – love and passion and the distance between hearts and minds; how and with whom we build a home – but the difference is in their writing styles, and most particularly in their construction of characters. It’s always been my experience that I recognize Kingsolver’s characters immediately, feel like I’ve known them forever within a few sentences. Patchett, on the other hand, uses a third-person omniscient style that manages to keep everyone at arm’s distance, that lets you hear their thoughts but somehow simultaneously dilutes them. Her language is lovely, and she paints the scene and the setting and the situation in very vivid and immediate terms, but then peoples that scene with washed-out watercolor people. The characters weren’t one-dimensional or flat, just distant – even by the end of the book, I hadn’t really bonded with any of them, so it was harder to get absorbed in the story. Also problematic in this sense was that Patchett tells the reader the end within the first few pages, which further lends a sense of futility and distance, and kept me from really caring. Still, it’s an interesting and original story, with some very nicely-turned language. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: For a novel that’s ostensibly about passion, I didn’t come out of it feeling particularly passionate about it one way or the other. Not a bad read, and I’m glad I did finally read it, but it’s not something I’ll go out of my way to recommend, either.

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First Line: When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.


  • p. 75: “He would in no way pretend to have any real medical knowldege, but certainly he spent a great deal of time visiting the sic and the sacrament he had most often performed was viaticum, and given those two experiences he had to say that this man who had played the piano so beautifully looked closer to viaticum than he did to the anointing of the sick.” – the Eucharist or Communion as given to a person dying or in danger of death.
  • p. 95: “This one had a cap with a photo button of Che Guevara on it, another wore a knife on his chest, one more had a cheap scapula of the Sacred Heart tied high up on his throat with a string.” – a small devotional artifact worn by male and female non-monastics in the belief that this will be of spiritual benefit to them. (usually scapular).
  • p. 290: “Mr. Hosokawa gave him a small, avuncular smile and pretended that there was nothing else to say.” – of, pertaining to, or characteristic of an uncle
One Comment leave one →
  1. May 28, 2008 9:32 am

    You’re right about Patchett’s style keeping us from bonding with the characters, but I still felt like I was inside that world, along with all of them.

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