Bel Canto

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Is this love? Is this just entertainment? Is this Lord of the Flies: The Opera?

“When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.”

Bel CantoThat’s the opener to the award-winning Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s most celebrated novel to date.

And the intrigue continues in an unnamed South American country where an extravagant birthday party is being held for powerful Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa.

Here’s the lowdown:

The Party Guests: dignitaries from all over the world, including ambassadors and businessmen—as well as other high-ranking, high-rolling foreigners.

The South American country objective: create an economic partnership between the host country and Japan.

The Bait: internationally acclaimed American opera soprano, Roxanne Coss.

The Last minute schedule change: host President Masuda bows out of the event because of his addiction to a prime-time soap opera.

The Terrorists: La Familia de Martin Suarez, a group intent on kidnapping President Masuda to bring about social justice and reform. They crash the party.

The Outcome: Botched plans, unexpected connections between captors and abductees, and a surprise ending.

Now, let’s get to it.

Jennifer: Well, as always, Ann Patchett tells a great story. She’s utterly engaging, her characters are diverse and lively and real, and her writing is perpetually sophisticated. I love her stuff, and I do thank you for introducing me to her. I think that everyone loves this book, right? Who doesn’t? It’s a great idea (based on a real hostage situation in the Japanese embassy in Peru in December 1996)! What’s not to like?

Except the end, maybe?

Lara: Let’s hold off on the ending for just a minute. Bel Canto is Patchett at her best. She’s assembled this seemingly disparate cast of characters who come together in astonishing ways. I think the character development is the best part of this book.

I marveled that she could create such interesting, layered characters you could really get invested in. I think my favorites were Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa’s assistant and translator (who ends up being a translator for everyone) and Carmen, the young terrorist everyone thought was a boy. Carmen is revealed to be a gorgeous young woman who wants to learn to read, with the help of Gen—everyone’s linguist and helper. Their storyline was lovely.

Jennifer: So this is my second Patchett novel, and fourth Patchett book. I think State of Wonder was the better novel. I love this one; I do. But. I started to think a little about Patchett’s stuff, and I realize this is based on very little. I kinda wonder if Patchett reveals mastery over plot, and mastery over language—but that’s where it ends (which might be good enough). She’s a storyteller, an amazing storyteller. I’m not so sure her novels have much moral or philosophical weight. For instance, when we walk away from this captivating tale (pun intended), what do we learn about love? About terrorism? About opera and Art? About beauty? Where’s the meat?

Lara: I love when you are wrong. Patchett absolutely delivers on meatier ideas and themes, the largest one in this story is that human instincts are not barbaric or violent in nature—which a lot of novels pursue.

Jennifer: I don’t get the “in nature” thing. What? Which novels? Can you explain?

Lara: I am not referring to actual nature. I am referring to the idea often covered in literature about whether man is inherently evil – think Deliverance or Lord of the Flies. In Bel Canto, Patchett brings together a group of powerful people, who play the power game daily through position, talent, money, or other means. Once this is stripped away and they are held captive in the Vice President’s mansion, they are on a level playing field. Money and position is no longer a factor. Force isn’t pursued. Survival, in the most basic but not barbaric, means is the modus operandi. Hostages and captors connect. They read, teach each other languages, play games. They even fall in love.

Ultimately, I think Patchett’s books are designed to be discussed and shared. Reading them alone is a disservice to the reader and the story; and it’s in these discussions that the heavier themes emerge.

Jennifer: (Well, let’s skip this for another day, but I see you’re point; I think, though, man actually is inherently evil—so I’m a little with the Lord of the Flies Crowd.)

You’re saying—I’m just trying to clarify—that the audience/readers collaboratively give it meaning, not the author? Am I with you?

Lara: I think it’s both. Consider this quote from the book:

“Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it . . . . It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.”

I think meaning comes from both sides of the coin, the artist and the audience.

Jennifer: These things are begging big questions, which we don’t need to necessarily answer, though they’re present. Am I privileging the author, while you’re privileging the reader? Is the meaning of the story subjective, what the reader brings to the story? What is the author responsible for? What is the audience responsible for?

Lara: The author is responsible to tell the story. The risk the author takes is in how the story will be perceived—especially if the author chooses a more metaphorical and less straightforward manner of storytelling. As readers, we don’t have the luxury of calling up the author and saying, “Hey, what did you mean by this? Or why did this character do/say that?”

Jennifer: You asked me—but didn’t write it down—the following question (in so many words): Can you just read for fun, not for some big moral lesson or meaning?

I think that’s a great question. I really do. And it haunts my own reading and most of my media consumption. I know, for example, I personally hate when people say I overanalyze a TV show because it’s “just entertainment.”

Whatever. The. F#@%.

There is no such thing as “just entertainment.” Everything is meaningful, and it’s our responsibility to figure it out. There is dumbass stuff out there, and—to me—that’s a problem. I don’t like dumbass stuff. And, yes, it bugs me when people do.

But that’s because I think there’s great, accessible, really fun, non-dumbass stuff out there. I want quality—not “just entertainment.” This might mean Mindy Kaling or Jenny Lawson or Maria Semple or Liane Moriarty or “The Walking Dead” or Superbad.

I guess I really, truly think that meaning is a mark of quality, but meaning must not be confused with being stuffy or dull.

Lara: But you have to realize this comes down to taste. Many people would argue that the authors, shows, and movies you listed are crap. That’s where you have to be careful. People aren’t wrong/dumb/bad because they like something different than you. And you aren’t better because you like something you perceive to be better.

Jennifer: True. And again this all raises big questions. Is taste subjective? Seems to be. Are there objective standards by which we might judge the quality of Art? Is it possible? You don’t need to answer any of these questions, though I think that, ultimately, book-reviewing results in us asking, What is a good book, and how do we know? I do entirely realize that I cannot be the barometer for taste or quality.

Now, all that said, I want to be very clear about something: in my weird, little schema, Ann Patchett is no lightweight. I expect a lot out of her because she’s that good.

Lara: She’s not a lightweight. And she’s totally accessible. Everyone should read her.

Jennifer: So we liked the book, though I might hesitate over its weightiness. What statement—if any—is this book making? Do we jump to its end, which many people didn’t love?

Lara: Sure, but we need to explain some things. And tell our readers that this is the spoiler part of the review. So stop, if you haven’t read the book. But read it. Most definitely read it and come back to the review.

So, the hostage standoff took months. The only reason Hosokawa agreed to attend the lavish affair was because Roxanne Coss was performing. He had no intention of ever entering a business deal with the host country. Hosokawa feels extremely guilty for the situation and the victims, most especially for the fate of Roxanne Coss—since they’re all there for him.

The terrorists with hearts of gold were not successful in getting their demands met. Roxanne Coss was their biggest bargaining chip, and all they could negotiate for was getting her sheet music. Anytime she sang, the house grew silent and the men swooned. That was probably my biggest beef with the book, how all the men fell in love with her whenever she sang. If it were a movie, I could see the lighting getting all soft and spongy, like the overlay they always do for Barbra Streisand when she’s interviewed. Barf.

Jennifer: What, Lara? That happens to me whenever I break out in song. Not you too?

Lara: You’re funny. Meanwhile, Gen, Mr. Hosakawa’s translator, sparks up a relationship with one of the captors, Carmen. They steal away into the wee hours for him to teach her how to read. Mr. Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss’ adoration for each other grows. A love affair between Gen and Carmen develops. The situation, being holed up in the Vice President’s mansion, cannot be sustained, of course—though, in many ways, the lives of this isolated group becomes almost utopian, maybe the opposite of Lord of the Flies. After several weeks, law enforcement finally swoops in and takes out the terrorists. What happens at the end is heartbreaking.

“One shot fixed them together in a paring no one had considered before: Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa, her head just to the left of his as if she was looking over his shoulder.”

And then there’s the epilogue.

Jennifer: That quote unexpectedly harks back to John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which two lovers are forever frozen or fixed on a piece of art. In this case, it’s the two lovers of other people, Carmen and Hosokawa.

After the resolution of the terrorist/hostage crisis, there is an epilogue. The epilogue caused a lot of consternation for readers, according to the interwebs and readers we know.

Lara: So, it’s months later. Simon Thibault and his wife Edith (former hostages) are in Europe, having attended Gen and Roxanne’s wedding. That’s right. The translator and the opera diva got married, even though Roxanne had been in love with Hosokawa, and Gen had been in love with Carmen. After the hostage situation, with their lovers dead, they marry.

This pissed people off. Here’s what I think: Of course they got married.

Jennifer: Oh. My. Goodness. We agree! I didn’t have a problem with the end. I was sad that Hosokawa and Carmen were dead (though had they lived, it would’ve been a pretty impossible situation), but Patchett wrote a story that is sensible and true to its fictional reality. In such a world, there would be dead bodies. What would two broken and forever-changed survivors do? They would seek understanding and solace? Who might provide that? Other survivors. The love might be imperfect, but I think it’s love nonetheless.

 Lara: Exactly.

You know a hostage situation is going to end badly. Hosokawa was a married man, based in Japan. Would he have left his wife to be with Roxanne?

Carmen, if not killed by the authorities, would certainly be arrested. And she lived in South America. How could she and Gen have sustained a relationship in the outside world?

Having Gen and Roxanne wed enables the chance for love to arise out of the most trying and uncertain circumstances. We see it happen in real life. Tragedy brings people together. Gen and Roxanne’s union honors what all the hostages went through. As Simon says, they married for “the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered.”

I think it was the best and most realistic way she could have ended it.

Bravo, Perdere Patchett!

Tell us in the comments what you thought about Bel Canto—we’d love to hear!

Next Up!

It’s the super talked about The Martian by Andy Weir.

Happy reading, Snotties!


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One Comment

  1. Deirdre June 17, 2015 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    I agree with Jennifer for a change, I enjoyed State of Wonder more. I came to Bel Canto immediately after I finished Patchett’s Truth & Beauty, which is raw and brilliant. Bel Canto, by comparison, seemed “airless” (to use Stephen King’s phrase for writing that reeks of writers-workshops, interesting and artful but self-conscious).

    Many of my most-reliable reader-friends love it, so I am probably wrong. It wasn’t so much that I disliked the end but that I was dissatisfied when it ended—-like Jennifer, expecting more food for thought. I remember hearing Patchett say she never thinks about her characters after she finishes a book, but that State of Wonder has been the exception.

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