Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

It is an unlikely encounter.  She is the best opera soprano currently singing.  He is an extremely wealthy Japanese industrialist.  They are brought together in a small Latin American country who wishes to court the fortune and influence of the businessman.  His birthday is coming up and one of the few personal things known about him is his love of opera.  So a massive birthday party is thrown and the opera singer is hired to provide the night's entertainment. 

At the end of her singing, the crowd of wealthy businessmen and their wives are silent, amazed at her talent.  At this moment, in swarms a group of guerrillas; it is hard to understand that they are actually there or what their purpose is.  They have come to kidnap the President of the country.  Unfortunately for their plans, the President didn't attend and his Vice President is the highest ranking official.  The guests are forced to the ground, their sumptuous garments crushed and matted.  What will the invaders do now?

What they do is settle in.  They soon get embroiled in negotiations with the police outside.  The women are all sent out in the first round of bargaining, as the terrorists realize they have too many hostages along with those who are ill.  That still leaves over forty men and one women inside; the soprano.  The terrorists are not willing to give up that bargaining chip. 

Now the negotiation period stalls.  Days, then weeks and soon months go by.  The terrorists begin to make ever more outrageous demands, and the police and officials outside provide nothing but food.  Soon the story even falls out of the headlines as days go by.  Inside, a new society emerges.  The men are all in love with the soprano.  A translator, Gen, who works for the Japanese tycoon, becomes essential as he can help these men from all over the world communicate with each other.  As the days go by, it is discovered that two of the guerrillas are girls who are disguised as boys.  Alliances are formed and love affairs emerge.  The most momentous is between the industrialist and the soprano but there are other love affairs as well.  Will this state of affairs go on forever?

Ann Patchett has written a story that is both torn from the headlines and timeless.  It is the story of people coming together in spite of differences.  It is the story of how we each long for beauty to make our lives more bearable.  It is the role of love in our lives.  The novel won the Orange Prize (now the Bailey Prize) and the PEN/Faulkner award.  It is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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