Library Director’s Notebook
Since February is the month for Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate to write about a romantic book. Yet the book I have chosen for this month, Bel Canto by Ann Patchet, while deeply and stirringly romantic, is much more than a love story.
In fact, considering how the story begins, with the hostage-taking of the members of an exclusive, upper class dinner party by a band of reckless and inexperienced terrorists, it’s hard to understand how any romance could take root in a less auspicious situation.
To recap the rather basic plot, in an unidentified South American country a lavish birthday party is being given in the home of the country’s Vice President for an honored visitor, Mr. Hosokawa, a wealthy and influential businessman whom the country’s politicians hope will invest in their struggling economy. Since Mr. Hosokawa is known to be a impassioned devotee of the world famous opera singer Roxane Coss, she has been induced to sing at his birthday party with the enticement of a ridiculously large sum of money.
All goes well at first, with every member of the distinguished party feeling honored to be part of the elaborate festivities. Suddenly, however, the event is violently disrupted as several dozen armed terrorists burst on the scene, intent on kidnapping the country’s president. The president, however, is not at the party, having decided, at the last minute, to skip the affair and stay home. Frustrated, furious, and now at a loss how to proceed, the terrorists led by 3 self appointed generals, begin first by roughing up the guests and then decide to make the best of a bad situation by holding them all hostage. As word gets out about the attack, the Vice President’s palatial mansion is soon surrounded by armed government troops, anxious crowds, and the international press A stand-off, that will last many months, begins.
This all happens in the first few pages. What follows next is the true substance of the book. Relationships develop as the days and then weeks pass, first among the guests, many of whom barely know each other and do not speak the same language; and, then later, although forbidden, between the young captors and their captives. The sheer logistics of feeding, organizing, and keeping control over dozens of hostages begins to fray nerves and tempers. Terror turns to boredom and, surprisingly, boredom turns to a kind of numb acceptance among both the hostages and their guards.
In the center of it all is the world-famous Roxane Coss whose exquisite voice, exceptional beauty, and unshakeable self confidence ensure her special treatment. With the help of a young Japanese translator named Gen, Roxane is able to make her wishes known and much to her astonishment, slowly comes to love a most unlikely man. Other unexpected loves and friendships take root, quietly and discretely, right under the noses of the truculent and increasingly desperate generals.
How can such a story end, except in violence and tragedy? Yet the novel explores such themes as the thrilling power of love, the universal power of music, and the healing power of compassion even in the midst of this violent and desperate scenario. In the end, the reader feels elevated by and intimate with the dreams and secret desires of these people, thrust from their everyday lives into a world at first harsh and terrifying; and yet later, for some, as fresh and trembling with promise as any Eden.