Book Note: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett


Bel Canto

Ann Patchett

An executive accepts an invitation to a small country for a birthday celebration only after the presence of his favorite opera singer – and a post-dinner performance – have been promised. The small country is hoping for an investment deal. The executive is hoping for a performance. By the end of the book, everyone will have more than they bargained for.

A band of terrorists storm the party site – the Vice President’s personal residence – planning to capture the President. He’s not there. They opt to hold the men and opera singer hostage and free the women and children. This all happens in the first third of the book. Patchett captures a microcosm of the world within a single residence and then lets the reader observe what happens. Frustrations, privileges, access, merit, and family tug and pull everyone trapped inside. Businessmen, politicians, an opera singer, and a priest, representing multiple countries, reveal through their actions both the best and the worst of economics, politics, culture, and religion. And bless the one interpreter in the group. If it weren’t for the thread of music he would have collapsed in exhaustion.

But there was music. And music brought them together, sustained them, surprised them, and left them.

I loved that Patchett infused music into the story. She captured the thrill and tension that music can bring to a situation. She didn’t use it as a prop but as a central character throughout. In doing so she allowed something that is often heard as a background or, worse, white noise, in our daily lives take center stage and exposed it for the powerful force that it has the potential to be.

Equally beautiful was her treatment of all the characters. While it would have been easy to follow often-used threads of power, privilege and grievance, Patchett infuses the story with equal parts credibility and compassion for the situations and relationships within the house. The most powerful character, the one that changed people and events time and again, was the music.

I didn’t like the Epilogue. There: I said it. The final pairing is awkward though I understand why she included  them together. Sharing traumatic experiences pulls people together who would not otherwise stay together because of that shared reality – one that cannot be understood by anyone else. I get it, but I didn’t like it. It would have been better to just let the end be the end. Interestingly, there was no music mentioned in the epilogue. Coincidence?

I was intrigued by Patchett’s design to include the entire story within the setting of the home. By confining the environment Patchett forced the story to be an exercise in character development. What a challenge to limit an entire novel to one place. And she succeeded adequately enough in creating memorable characters since the place where I received the recommendation to read this book came from another book: David Corbett’s The Art of Character.

2 Responses to “Book Note: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett”

    • RebeccaV

      I’ll check out State of Wonder – she’s got a few books out and some of them seem interesting to me and others not so much. I’m trying to figure out which ones I’ll add to my TBR pile and which ones to avoid. A good problem to have all in all 🙂


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