I chose Bel Canto for my first book review for two reasons.
The first is, I really like the book.
The second is that for the Word of [S]outh festival planned for April 11 – 12, 2015, Ann Patchett is one of the authors we have coming.
Like many books that pull you in quickly, there is an unusual opening scene. A song, an unexpected kiss, a power outage, and a break-in. We get to know the characters intimately within the first pages of the book. The descriptions of the elite crowd of visitors who are taken hostage during an in-house concert includes a moment of detail about who they are to the world, and a bigger slice of time spent on who they are as individuals.
Included in this groups are a man who was growing apart from his wife and had to move around the world to reconnect. The business-man who attended the party strictly for the benefit of being in the same room as his favorite opera singer. With no intentions of doing what his host requested him to do. The diplomat who feels it’s his duty to take care of everyone and everything, including that which is not really his.
Bel Canto takes place in South America but the group of guests taken hostage represent a smattering of people from around the world. The militant group holding them has a list of demands that has little to nothing to do directly with any of the hostages. Their fault is that they are simply people of influence, and the threat of hurting them may move the government into action.
As the story develops, we learn more about each of these characters who are occupying the space of this house together. Patchett provides glimpses into life before this moment and also some details about how the time here is being processed.
For me the story is a beautiful telling of our ability to connect to one-another as human beings even under the most bizarre or strained of circumstances. There are language barriers, differences in political beliefs, and variances in motivation to leave the house and rejoin the outside world. Some are afraid or lonely and want to go back to normal life. And then there are those who are happier here than they have been in long time, or possibly ever.
Throughout the story, the opera-singer uses her gift of music to pull together the members of the house. There is a strong sense that they would unite for the purpose of preserving her and her voice. The music serves as a common bond as they build a sense of community among themselves over the days and weeks in this shared space.
The many references to music give us as readers the opportunity to decide if we want to deepen our connection with this tale by finding and listening to the pieces referred to in the book. In this way, Ann Patchett gives us the gift of bringing one part of the story to life in our own every day experience.
The end of the story is not sugar-coated. It is not cloaked in a shroud of happy-ending bliss. Instead Ann Patchett gives us an ending that is most likely what would happen in real life under similar circumstances. I noticed that while I was reading there is a point in the book where several of the characters, the ones I grew to care about, were experiencing bliss.
They were genuinely happy in their circumstances. And as a result, when the book ends with a crash back to reality, I was left wondering, if the story ended the way it most likely would in the “real world” could it stand to reason that the story is a true reflection of the human spirit in the “real world?” To what extent and circumstances are we capable of connecting with one another on a deep level? To what degree are we able to see past the basic labels of “diplomat,” “business-man,” “singer,” “advocate,” “thief,” and even “criminal” and embrace the person who lives underneath that outward label?
There is research that details the psychology of hostages connecting with the people holding them hostage. Perhaps it comes from gratitude that the hostage did not end their life right away. Or maybe it’s simply because our brains are wired for connection already and when in high-stress situations, there’s where we go – we latch onto the nearest human being in the room.
It was a beautiful novel, one that I recommend both for its storyline and for its read-ability. Patchett’s writing style is lyrical and flowing. It was easy to stay up into the wee hours of the morning with this satisfying, thoughtful read.
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Sara Marchessault is a coach, writer, teacher, and mom who helps busy women use journaling to create more space in their life for being productive without feeling overwhelmed. To learn more about Sara and her work in the world, please visit joyfulbydesign.com or saramarchessault.com.