Bel Canto—A Book that Sings

Bel Canto

By Anne Patchett

Published 2001

Read Sept 2021

An unnamed South American country’s government invites Katsumi Hosokawa, CEO of a Japanese electronics company, to come to their country to celebrate his birthday.  They hope he will choose to build a plant there.  By inviting Roxane Coss, a famous soprano opera singer, to sing at the event, they are successful in getting him to attend the event which is attended as well by executives from a number of companies around the world.  One person is not in attendance—the President of the country.  The Vice President is hosting the event at his large home.  Near the end of the party a terrorist group invades the ballroom with the intention of taking the President hostage.  When it is learned he is not there (he preferred to watch his favorite TV soap opera instead) they take all the party participants hostage.  After the first few harrowing hours, they decide to release all the women (except Roxane Coss) and a few others.

While the book’s beginning feels somewhat like an action-thriller, once the hostages are winnowed down and Joaquin Messner, a Swiss Red Cross representative (who happens to be vacationing in the country) arrives to begin negotiations, the hostages and captors slowly develop an understanding of protocols and acceptable actions and behaviors by the hostages.  Similarly, the book now focuses on the individual characters and their evolving relationships. 

We learn much about Mr. Hosokawa including his love of opera and that only Roxane Coss’s appearance was able to coax him to come to the event.  We learn that Roxane Coss was lured to the event by the money she would be paid and that she now vows to restrict her engagements to three stable countries.  Roxane Coss was the only woman kept as a hostage for her clear “worth” in the negotiating process.  After a few days when she recognizes the situation isn’t resolving quickly, she decides she must continue her routine of practicing so she will be able to reenter her singing career when the situation is over.  A new accompanist is recruited, music scores are obtained from a local source through the young priest who decided to remain a hostage, and she begins singing.  And the book sings as well.

 The book’s song carries the reader through the development of a unique hostage/captor community.  The Vice President takes on a role of serving and cleaning.  The French ambassador to the unspecified country becomes head chef and some of the captors are his sous chefs.  Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s multi-lingual interpreter, becomes an important element of the situation as so few of the hostages speak the language of other hostages or their captors.  Two of the captors turn out to be young girls.  One of them, Carmen, is assigned to stand guard at Roxane Coss’s bedroom.  Romantic relationships develop, not surprising given the close quarters they all share.  Several young captors have talents that are “discovered” by their hostages and the hostages begin to help them develop these talents which may allow them to have very different lives post-hostage situation than they lived before. 

Truth be told, neither the reader nor the hostage/captor community really want the situation to end.  But the song does come to an end that is not wholly surprising but somewhat so.  The epilogue is the encore that reminds us of the great song that has been told and sung. 

This is beautifully written book about a very unique set of circumstances that shouldn’t have happened but did and the remarkable, but temporary, result that followed.   

We Begin at the End–a Police Officer and an Outlaw

We Begin at the End

By Chris Whitaker

Published 2021

Read Aug 2021

There are many characters in this book but the two main protagonists are Walk (short for Walker, his last name) and Duchess Radley.  Walk grew up in the small Californian town in which he is now a member of the two-person police force.  Duchess is the 13-year-old daughter of Star Radley who also grew up in this town.  Star dated Vincent King, Walk’s best friend, when they were in high school but that relationship was truncated when Vincent went to jail as a teenager after being convicted of manslaughter of Star’s six-year-old sister, Sissy.  Walk figured out Vincent was probably the driver of the hit-and-run and his testimony sunk his friend.  Walk has tried to remain in contact with Vincent while he’s been in jail but Vincent hasn’t obliged. As the book begins, Vincent has been released from jail after serving his sentence.  Duchess is a self-proclaimed “outlaw” and tries to be tough.  She has certainly had a tough life as she is basically the primary care-giver for her five year old brother and her substance abuser mother, Star.   

A new tragic mystery arises in the small town—Star Radley is found dead.  Vincent is arrested for her murder.  Walk reconnects with his girlfriend from high school—but only to obtain a lawyer for Vincent who seems committed to returning to jail to serve time for this new crime.  In the meantime, Star and her brother are trundled to Montana to stay with distant relatives which looks promising but of course falls apart. 

Did Vincent murder Star and, if so, why?  Will Walk regain his friendship with Vincent?  Will that enable Walk to move forward with his life?  What will happen to Duchess Radley and her brother?   Lots of questions for the plot to cover. 

This reader found the book reasonably engaging. All of the characters seem quite lost and not capable of finding a way towards a life they might consider worth living.  Duchess Radley’s assertions that she is an “outlaw” did not seem quite convincing.  She certainly rails against everything and everyone that tries to help her.  Is this what she thinks an “outlaw” is?  The language seems to be trying too hard sometimes to be “literary” which almost gets in the way of the very complex story.    There has been much praise for this book and a Disney studio apparently intends to bring the story to the screen.  The story likely would make a good several-part dark TV series for streaming.  There is many twists and turns that might come up short in a movie version but time will tell.

A Kiss Before Dying—a Classic Must-Read Thriller!

A Kiss Before Dying

By Ira Levin

Published 1953

Read July 2021

Ira Levin was only twenty-three when he wrote this now classic mystery/thriller.  He would go on to write Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and a number of plays including No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, a long running comedy/thriller on Broadway.   

A Kiss Before Dying, published in 1953, is set in that timeframe.  Young men and women on college campuses smoked and flirted.  Young women lived in dormitories and some young men lived in rooms rented in town by widows.  Young men who had served in WWII were benefitting from the GI bill and were a little older than many of their college classmates. Some of these young men came to college with more “experience” and may or may not have been more likely to persuade their female classmates to join them in bed.  Regardless, college girls did have sex even in those pre- “pill” days, and sometimes found themselves in the situation of hoping their boyfriend would become their husband.  Such is the case for Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon.  When Dorothy’s older sister, Ellen, decides to investigate Dorothy’s suicide, things get very interesting—but you will have to read (or listen to) this book to find out why. 

This reader enjoyed being transported in time to 1953 to see some of the culture of the day.  But the primary draw of this novel is Levin’s expertise in building tension repeatedly and experiencing the jolts from the unexpected plot turns. 

Read and enjoy!!