Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I’ve been holding off from reviewing this because it was the book my Book Group met to discuss tonight. Now the meeting is over I can click that ‘publish’ button….

I had never heard of Bel Canto despite it being short listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, nor had I heard of Ann Patchett before this was chosen as the Book Group Book. As I do every month, I ordered a used copy of the book from Amazon and couldn’t wait to make a start.

The blurb says:

Kidnappers storm an international gathering hosted by a poor Latin American country to promote foreign trade. Unfortunately, their intended target, the president, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap. The takeover settles into a siege, bringing together an unlikely assortment of hostages, including a beautiful American opera diva, a Japanese CEO who is her biggest fan, and his unassuming translator, Gen. Two couples, complete opposites, fall in love and a horrific imprisonment is transformed into an unexpected haven on earth.

I quite often find I read my monthly Book Group book too quickly so that by the time I go to the meeting a lot of the little details have been forgotten. If I start the book later in the month though, I feel like I’m rushing to finish it! So instead I start early and try to note down anything important that occurs to me whilst I’m reading. I only made two notes on this book and they are: ‘I’m 75 pages in and nothing has happened yet…’; ‘110 pages in and still nothing more…’ at which point I gave up writing notes.

In order to finish reading this in time for the meeting (it takes a lot for me to give up on a book completely), I actually had to adopt a ’12 page a day rule’ which I studiously stuck to, with a quick burst of energy last weekend to finish it completely. I didn’t enjoy it; it was a chore rather than a pleasure. But why?

Looking at other people’s reviews on Amazon today the book has been described as ‘poignant’, ‘very funny’, ‘crisply written’, ‘immaculately plotted’. So what’s the story and why didn’t I ‘get’ it? I guess I can just about get the ‘poignant’ bit; the ending could be described as poignant and was by far the bit I enjoyed the most. ‘Very funny’ however, makes me question whether the person writing that had actually read the same book I did. There may be one (or even two at a push) mildly humorous parts, but ‘very funny’ is absolutely outside the realms of reality here. ‘Crisply written’ I would also dispute. ‘Crisp’ to me describes a certain clarity of writing with an obvious purpose, maybe even a little sparse, where every word has been selected for a specific purpose. I didn’t get that at all from this. And as for ‘immaculately plotted’, well…

The basic plot concerns a group of terrorists who storm a party being held at the Vice President’s house, intending to kidnap the President of an un-specified country. Unluckily for the terrorists and even more so for the other guests that did attend, the President decided to ditch the party at the last minute in favour of his on-screen soap-opera crush. Put in an understandably awkward situation, the terrorists ‘wing it’ and decide to take everyone at the party hostage. For what seemed a very long time after this very little happens. I remember thinking ‘when are we actually going to find out why they’ve done this and what their demands are?’ Yes, the terrorists interact with the hostages and there is one ‘incident’ that if you were at all engaged with the novel so far, could elicit an emotional response but for me, it just didn’t.  For me there were just endless pages talking about lots of people in a house.

The next bit of action only materialises when the terrorists are convinced to let some of the hostages go by the only regular character that appears from outside the house – the Swiss Red-Cross representative,  Messner. ‘Things are starting to look up’, I thought. ‘We’ll get some action now’! Not so. All of the women bar one are released, along with anyone that was ill. That’s it. Action over and done within a couple of pages.

With no action whatsoever, the ‘story’ can only concern the characters of and the interaction between the hostages and the terrorists. Who are, by the way, the least frightening terrorists you have ever met – right from the start. Some of them are only in their mid-teens, two of them are girls and the reader just knows from the offset that these people are not going to starting shooting the hostages. These 58 people live together in the Vice President’s house for nearly 5 months with Messner visiting daily to bring provisions, and so the reader has plenty of time (oh my god, soooo much time) to see the hostage-terrorist dynamic change and develop. I am enough of a seasoned reader to see how the changes to this dynamic could appeal to readers. Unfortunately it just didn’t do it for me.  I just didn’t really care and all I kept thinking was ‘Hmmm. Why aren’t more of them reading and asking for books? How many books could I devour in 5 months?’

The other key strand to the narrative is the importance of music and more specifically, opera. The only woman hostage not released is Roxanne Coss – an American soprano who the terrorists keep as a bargaining chip (although thinking about it, she’s never really used as one). Her music is key in bringing the characters together (hostages and terrorists alike) and her singing becomes a kind of universal language that overcomes the barriers between the Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French and Italian inmates. Key to the story is the character of Gen, a Japanese translator who interacts with everyone, on behalf of everyone and without whom there really wouldn’t be a story at all. Lastly, there are of course a few love interests, or ‘lust’ interests if you’re being more accurate about it.

So am I an action junkie? If I’d been asked that question a month ago I’d definitely have said no; now I’m not so sure. I was undoubtedly craving something whilst reading this that I just wasn’t getting, but was it just action? Or was it a certain credibility to the story that I just didn’t get? I think I can say what I’m going to say without putting you all on spoiler alert, but the idea that all 57 hostages and terrorists alike, were on some level in love with Roxanne Coss by the end of the novel did nothing for me. Nor did the appearance of the next big male opera sensation well over three quarters of the way through the story. Similarly, I found it unbelievably lucky that they managed to find a perfect piano-playing accompanist amongst the gathering to assist Roxanne to practice, and despite him not speaking English, they manage to communicate perfectly.

The ending of the hostage situation was how I expected it to be, and was the only part of the novel that elicited any kind of emotional response in me. It wasn’t a huge response, but there was a response there nevertheless so I guess I must have cared about a few of the characters on some level. The actual ending to the novel however, again, just wasn’t credible on any level. I can’t explain why without spoilers but honestly, really??? Ms Patchett’s desire or need to tie up the novel nicely has seriously pushed the boundaries of credibility here.

But maybe I’m just feeling sore because I truly didn’t experience this novel in the same way that thousands of others have. Perhaps it was just a case of ‘wrong book, wrong time’? Another reviewer described the books as ‘About finding beauty in unexpected places’. I really wish it had been like that for me.

The longest 336 pages of my life:  a disappointed 1/5 for me and it’s such a shame because her third novel, The Magician’s Assistant (for which she won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002) sounds interesting… but can I bring myself to try another one?

Bel Canto


One thought on “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

  1. Call me cynical, and most people do, but I often feel that a lot of the reviews on amazon are merely fabrications. Not that I don’t believe that they are written by real people, but the review itself is fabricated out of some misaligned sense of wishing to please and also impress (bear in mind that amazon tends to nag you into reviewing items purchased, sometimes even going as far as bribery).

    When a book wins a prize, often people rush to read it and strive too hard to search for some sort of hidden meaning. When there is none apparent, they seem to strive to defend their purchase and start using terms such as “poignant” or “crisp” (the latter of which being somewhat abstract and vague to apply to a narrative) to cover up some sort of embarrassment. This is a broad generalization, I know, but seems to be accurate more often than not.

    I’ve not read it, myself, so I may very well be completely wrong. Amusingly enough, however, I have been tempted to read it before, purely to find out if it is as dull as I suspect it to be.

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