Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (♦♦♦)

Authorities of a South American country throw a birthday party for the head of a Japanese corporation. The party takes place at the mansion of the vice-president. The president of said country has excused himself from attending at the last minute. Hundreds of people of different nationalities are in attendance. The hallmark of the celebration is the singing by a world-famous soprano. When she finishes one of her arias, the lights go off and a group of guerrilla fighters enter through the air conditioning vents and take everyone hostage.

I had mixed feelings about Bel Canto. As the book opened I was enthralled and enjoyed very much the plot because I sort of recognized the setting immediately. Ann Patchett never identified the country by name but she planted clues along the way to pinpoint its identity: she spoke about the production of drugs such as coca and heroine, so I focused on perhaps a composite between Bolivia and Peru and perhaps Afghanistan. Then she mentioned that the president of said country was a Japanese descendant and I zeroed in on Peru. In addition she mentioned the Andes and that one of the fighters was a fervent devout of Santa Rosa de Lima (Peru). At the same time I remembered vaguely the hostage crisis in the Japanese embassy and that sealed my interest.

However interesting the book started, I thought that it was at least two hundred pages too long because after the hostages were taken, everything else was “what could have been”. Everyday details filled the pages. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story and every time I started reading I was hooked again, but it felt like great effort to finish the book. Despite that flaw, I liked that she humanized the hostages and the captors; we got to know their dreams, their motivations, their characters and what they were capable of given the circumstances.

In summary, Bel Canto opened with a great premise but devolved into what I thought was standard fare. Kudos to Ann Patchett, though, for breaching the topic.

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