Bel Canto is that book – the one that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years, that I’ve picked up three or four times but never actually gotten around to reading, that people kept telling me to read because it’s so wonderful, that makes me feel a little guilty every time I see it on the shelf. Finally, I picked it up and actually read it!
It tells the story of the birthday party thrown for Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman, in an unnamed South American country. The partygoers are taken hostage by a group of terrorists set on kidnapping the country’s president, but the kidnapping goes awry since the president couldn’t be bothered to show up to the party. The terrorists instead take the party guests hostage and everyone lives together under one roof until they can come up with an alternate solution.
This is the second Ann Patchett novel I’ve read; the first was The Magician’s Assistant, which (as I said in my review) was a character story without much plot. Bel Canto was the next book she wrote, and she upped her game: there are more characters, more plot points, more moving parts, and for the most part, all are well written and flushed out. At the core, though, both books are about the same thing: the relationships that form under unlikely circumstances.
What I Liked
The best thing that Bel Canto has going for it is the character Gen, who is Mr. Hosokawa’s translator. In the beginning of the novel, he is just a conduit for characters who don’t speak the same language to communicate, but as the story progresses, he becomes the central character. The way that Patchett incorporated this development is pretty brilliant: in the beginning of the novel, his backstory starts at the moment that he met Mr. Hosokawa, and his dialogue as translator is mostly missing from the writing. When the character comes into his own, we learn the rest of his backstory, and his dialogue as translator is included. Again, I think this is genius writing on Patchett’s part – it’s a subtle shift, but there’s a moment when the character stops being Mr. Hosokawa’s translator and starts being his own person.
And while we’re on the subject of Patchett’s writing, she narrates in third person omniscient, which is so effective in this story. It’s my opinion as a reader that third person omniscient can be horrible, boring and pretentious to read. Patchett uses it sparingly, but effectively, only a couple of times stepping aside from the events of the novel to say things like “here’s what will happen at the end of the ordeal,” or “he would think fondly of this night when he looked back on it in the future.”
What I Didn’t Like
The other main character is the opera singer, Roxanne Coss, and maybe it’s because I just recently read the New Yorker profile of Scarlett Johansson and the critical responses by the likes of Slate and the LA Times, but I’m left feeling like this character was underwritten. Maybe this was intentional on Patchett’s part, but there’s a stark contrast to how Gen started as a translator and became a flushed out and multidimensional character and Roxanne started as an opera singer with whom all the men fell in love and ended exactly the same.
I liked Bel Canto … but between the several people hounding me to read it and how much I loved the other Patchett novel, I had very high expectations and it just couldn’t quite meet them. It’s a lovely, well-written book, and if you haven’t already read it, it’s definitely worth reading. I just don’t want to build it up too much, because it doesn’t quite live up to the expectations that I had going in.
Here’s the link to the Publisher’s Weekly review.