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Bel Canto


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sidneycordie, April 3, 2014 (view all comments by sidneycordie)
Bel Canto is a 2001 novel by American author Ann Patchett, published by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It was awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It is a story about finding passion in the face of danger. It takes place in an unknown South American country at the Vice President’s mansion. A world-renown opera singer has been brought there to sing for the head of a Japanese technology company in hopes that he will build a site in their country. Right as the night starts to get entertaining, a swarm of 18 terrorists storm the house and take it over in hopes to kidnap the President. Alas, the President is not there like they thought and they have to stay to figure out their next step. This novel is perfect for anyone who likes suspense and/or getting deeper into the South American past. This book would definitely be four and a half stars on my top 10 book list.
As previously stated, the book takes place in an unknown country in South America. It can be inferred that the country is Peru by one hint, which is when the terrorists talk about their native language being Quechua. The reader never learns the exact time that the story is taking place, but you can tell it is in the not-too-distant past (most likely in the nineties). Although it is fiction, the novel is based on a true story.
The eighteen terrorists that came for the President realize he isn’t there so they stay for a lot longer than expected. They are trapped for months and things/events happen that one would never expect. Hostages become friends, terrorist and hostage become lovers, but most importantly, hostages and terrorists become friends and family. In an interview about the use of isolation in her novel, Patchett said, “I’m much more of a utopian than a dystopian. I find that basically when people are removed from society, they find happiness. One review of Bel Canto said, ‘Instead of Lord of the Flies, it was Lord of the Butterflies.’” She also goes to say that the idea of the idea of how the normal hostage and captivity situation was flipped topsy-turvy by making the group develop a relationship and yearn to stay together.
In Bel Canto, Patchett uses characterization, symbolism, and point of view to create the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of death to comment on the idea that the apparent is not the same as reality. The symbols of the vice presidency, the weather, and the mansion are the most apparent symbols. The importance of the Vice President compared to the unimportance of the President helps to illustrate the corruption in their government. While the President is at home watching Soap Operas, the Vice President is doing all the work by trying to get an important figure to build in his country. The use of the weather as a symbol is also used. The shift from chronic fog and mist to sunshine helps to represent the shift in the characters’ attitudes and how they realize that the captors are not bad people; they are just very devout to their cause. This illustrates the idea that the guise that their culture is developing about them is not true and that a lot of people are unhappy with the country’s government/policies. Lastly, the use of the Vice President’s mansion is used as a symbol to represent assumed truth versus reality. The people on the outside are in constant belief that the people on the inside are in grave danger and absolutely need to escape, while in reality they are actually enjoying their time in the house. On the other side, the inside believes that they will be able to stay there forever and become a new family or that the police will eventually leave them alone.
Characterization is also used to create the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of danger. To start, the kidnappers are a poor group of citizens that want their rights protected and their family/friends freed. This makes the terrorists seem more sympathetic because they have a good cause and they are reasonable and caring towards their captives. Second, the use of Gen Watanabe as the official translator helps to create the theme as well. He helps to show how reasonable and caring the captors really are behind their tough façade. They are willing to communicate with as many people as possible and actually become friends with Gen Watanabe.
Point of view is the last key to developing the theme. The point of view helps to show what is going on in the minds of others and what is actually going on. When the speaker is objective, the reader only sees what looks like a terrifying hostage situation compared to when the speaker is in third person omniscient point of view, that objectivity is gone and the reader knows the truth.
I think that another book to read in hand with this one is In the Time of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. These two books go nicely together seeing as they are both about a darker time in South American history. At the same time though, they look deeper into the motives of the so called criminals to discover if they really were all that bad. Also, they both look at how the governments would cast away one idea or subject in order to get what they needed done and/or accomplished. All in all, Bel Canto is a beautifully written book that looks into the darker areas of South American culture. Ann Patchett does a very nice job of making sure not to criticize this government though, but of telling a story. This novel is a wonderful catalyst for the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of death.
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BeTheChange, September 20, 2011 (view all comments by BeTheChange)
I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. Patchett has a lyrical writing style, which lends itself nicely to what is basically a love letter to opera. There were certainly some notable/quotable passages but while I found the plot and characters to be engaging, the ending fell flat for me.
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whoseblues1, June 28, 2007 (view all comments by whoseblues1)
On a scale of 5, I'd give it a 10. Patchett's writing is like butter -- so easy to read, so evocative, so warm and brilliant. The story is wonderful, and wonderfully told. Yes, there are improbabilities -- it's not journalism, it's fiction -- but the story is so entrancing and the writing so enchanting that you're more than willing to buy in. The cultural juxtapositions are spot on, whether simply sketched or illustrated in depth. If you are a reader of literary fiction, take the time to read this book, now! If literary fiction isn't typically your cup of tea, give this book a shot anyway. There's a reason this book won the PEN/Faulkner and Orange Awards and came out as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It's really just plain too good to miss.
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Eleanor, September 28, 2006 (view all comments by Eleanor)
A beautifully written story. Loosely inspired by a real-life incident, the reader knows how the story will end within a few pages. However, Patchett creates a separate world within the walls of a Vice Presidential mansion that has been taken over by terrorists. Shades of gray and the human heart play more of a role in the book than any political motivation. The story also ends on a surprisingly peaceful note.
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Product Details

Patchett, Ann
Harper Perennial
General Fiction
Psychological fiction
Love stories
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade PB
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8.10x5.32x.83 in. .58 lbs.

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
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Bel Canto Used Trade Paper
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Product details 352 pages Harper Perennial - English 9780060838720 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "There are quite a few improbable aspects to Bel Canto, but the handful of times when I found my head popping above the surface of Patchett's novel to catch a quick lungful of realism — is it really possible that among a group of 57 assorted men there wouldn't be one opera hater or homosexual? — I was promptly sucked back under the surface by the book's bewitching undertow. This is a story of passionate, doomed love; of the glory of art; of the triumph of our shared humanity over the forces that divide us, and a couple of other unbearably cheesy themes, and yet Patchett makes it work, completely." (click here to read the entire Salon.com review)
"Review" by , "Patchett creates a remarkably compelling chronicle of a multinational group of the rich and powerful held hostage for months....Readers may intellectually reject the author's willingness to embrace the terrorists' humanity, but only the hardest heart will not succumb....Brilliant."
"Review" by , "Ann Patchett's latest novel sneaks up so stealthily on the reader that before you know it, you've already skipped a meal or missed your meeting....The power and majesty of music, the power and acceptability of good writing. It's all there in Ann Patchett's Bel Canto."
"Review" by , "Let me put this plainly: Ann Patchett has written the best book I've read in a long, long time. Bel Canto is a masterpiece true to its title, a beautiful song, a broad, bold entirely original love story destined to become an international classic. This is the book we all wait for, the one we thrust into the hands of friends, saying, 'You've got to read this! You've got to read this now!'"
"Review" by , "Patchett's tragicomic novel — a fantasia of guns and Puccini and Red Cross negotiations — invokes the glorious, unreliable promises of art, politics, and love. Against this grand backdrop, the smallest gestures bloom with meaning."
"Review" by , "[An] elegantly alluring book....Although this novel is entirely housebound, at the vice presidential mansion, Ms. Patchett works wonders to avoid any sense of claustrophobia and keeps the place fresh at every turn."
"Synopsis" by , “Blissfully Romantic….A strange, terrific, spellcasting story.” — San Francisco Chronicle

Bel Canto…should be on the list of every literate music lover. The story is riveting, the participants breathe and feel and are alive, and throughout this elegantly-told novel, music pours forth so splendidly that the reader hears it and is overwhelmed by its beauty.” —Lloyd Moss, WXQR

“Glorious.” —The New Yorker

Ann Pratchetts award winning, New York Times bestselling Bel Canto balances themes of love and crisis as disparate characters learn that music is their only common language. As in Patchetts other novels, including Truth & Beauty and The Magicians Assistant, the authors lyrical prose and lucid imagination make Bel Canto a captivating story of strength and frailty, love and imprisonment, and an inspiring tale of transcendent romance.

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