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.   

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