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Bel Canto


Bel Canto Cover




Chapter One
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise. They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, "Brava! Brava!" and the Japanese turned away from them. Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that opera was a collection of nonsensical cat screechings, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist's chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken.

No one was frightened of the darkness. They barely noticed. They kept applauding. The people who lived in other countries assumed that things like this must happen here all the time. Lights go on, go off. People from the host country knew it to be true. Besides, the timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, You have no need for sight. Listen. What no one stopped to think about was why the candles on every table went out as well, perhaps at that very moment or the moment before. The room was filled with the pleasant smell of candles just snuffed, a smoke that was sweet and wholly unthreatening. A smell that meant it was late now, time to go to bed.

They continued the applause. They assumed she continued her kiss.

Roxane Coss, lyric soprano, was the only reason Mr. Hosokawa had come to this country. Mr. Hosokawa was the reason everyone else had come to the party. It was not the kind of place one was likely to visit. The reason the host country (a poor country) was throwing a birthday party of unreasonable expense for a foreigner who had to be all but bribed into attending was that this foreigner was the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. It was the fondest wish of the host country that Mr. Hosokawa would smile on them, help them in some of the hundred different ways they needed helping. That could be achieved through training or trade. A factory (and this was the dream so dear its name could hardly be spoken) could be built here, where cheap labor could mean a profit for everyone involved. Industry could move the economy away from the farming of coca leaves and blackhearted poppies, creating the illusion of a country moving away from the base matter of cocaine and heroin, so as to promote foreign aid and make trafficking of those very drugs less conspicuous. But the plan had never taken root in the past, as the Japanese, by nature, erred on the side of caution. They believed in the danger and the rumors of danger countries such as this presented, so to have Mr. Hosokawa himself, not an executive vice president, not a politician, come and sit at the table was proof that a hand might be extended. And maybe that hand would have to be coaxed and begged. Maybe it would have to be pulled from its own deep pocket. But this visit, with its glorious birthday dinner replete with opera star, with several meetings planned and trips to possible factory sites tomorrow, was a full world closer than they had ever come before and the air in the room was sugared with promise. Representatives from more than a dozen countries who had been misled as to the nature of Mr. Hosokawa's intentions were present at the party, investors and ambassadors who might not encourage their governments to put a dime into the host country but would certainly support Nansei's every endeavor, now circled the room in black tie and evening gown, making toasts and laughing.

As far as Mr. Hosokawa was concerned, his trip was not for the purposes of business, diplomacy, or a friendship with the President, as later would be reported. Mr. Hosokawa disliked travel and did not know the President. He had made his intentions, or lack of intentions, abundantly clear. He did not plan to build a plant. He would never have agreed to a trip to a strange country to celebrate his birthday with people he did not know. He was not much for celebrating his birthday with people he did know, and certainly not his fifty-third, which he considered to be a number entirely without note.

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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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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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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 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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