I'm pleased to say that Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is not a romantic travelogue through Italy. Of course, there is no reason to think it would be. It was my mistake, and one of two happy instances of surprise the novel provided me. Perhaps my erroneous idea of the novel's subject is what kept me from picking it up until now, eight years after its release. Boy am I glad I did. The book is terrific, the best I've read since Joseph O'Neill's Netherland.
Bel Canto begins with a gala set in the mansion of the vice president of an unnamed South American country. The party is in honor of a wealthy Japanese businessman, who is only there to witness a private performance by the world's foremost soprano. But before the diva is able to finish her performance, the lights go out: terrorists have broken into the mansion, thus beginning a standoff that will last months.
The second surprise is that the book is not a thriller filled with failed escape attempts and one tense situation after another. No, Bel Canto is about life in purgatory, as the characters, hostage and terrorist alike, settle into their new home. Their only contact to the outside world is a Red Cross worker who is a conduit for negotiations, and a courier for necessities like food, newspapers, and most importantly, sheet music. Patchett's diva must sing, and it's through her that the book's theme of love -- of music, beauty, language, human bonds -- is realized.
I won't go into more detail about the story (which is not really a plot, in the strictest sense of the term), since it would ruin the remarkable tale that Patchett deftly unspools. I will mention the sentences, so lovely and elegant (a word that best describes the entire novel) that I can't pick out just one example for fear of slighting another. Bel Canto is to be read slowly to be fully enjoyed.
In the end, Bel Canto is a novelization of Stockholm syndrome. Yes, the characters succumb to it, but it is the reader who is inexorably made to feel sympathy for the hapless devil that overtakes the opulent estate. By the novel's conclusion, the abrupt tragedy of the climax only underlines the beauty that takes place in the three hundred pages that precedes it. I was left wanting more, but I appreciated Patchett's restraint.
It's a remarkable book. I waited eight years to find this out, but, as the saying goes, better late than never.