Ann Patchett”s most recent novel, “Bel Canto,” is in itself a beautiful song. When it starts, the narrative is stiff and impersonal, but it begins to color and take on life as we become acquainted with Patchett”s array of characters. Of course, the story is not without some of the characteristic drama that belongs to opera itself. Patchett has created a dazzling world of strange love, tragedy, friendship and the unexpected power of music.
A story that explores the most unimagined places begins at a birthday party for a powerful Japanese executive. His name is Mr. Hosokawa, and the party is intended to be a bribe of sorts. The government of an unnamed South American country has invited celebrated soprano Roxanne Coss to perform, knowing that the opera-loving businessman would be unable to refuse his invitation. Everyone hopes that he will agree to build a factory in their country, giving the lagging economy a boost. Everything is running smoothly, with all of the guests collected in the South American vice president”s living room, when a group of terrorists burst in through the air-conditioning vents. They call themselves “La Familia de Martin Suarez.”
They are looking for the President of the South American country who is, sadly, not present. The Vice President spitefully informs them that he has stayed home because he could not bear to miss the special evening episode of his favorite soap opera. The terrorists, angry and confused, their well-laid plans foiled, move in for the long haul. By the next afternoon they have released all of the women and children but one, the beautiful Roxanne Coss.
So begins a story in which terrorists and their hostages create a dynamic makeshift world within the spacious home of the Vice President. Relationships are at first a little fragile, and alliances are unexpected. The fact that nearly everyone in the house speaks a different language makes initial communication difficult.
Language becomes less and less important as the captives and terrorists develop other forms of communication. They play chess and soccer. They sit in silence. They enjoy opera. Each day begins with a performance by Ms. Coss and an unlikely accompanist. Words are unnecessary a love affair begins between Coss and a male terrorist, two people who understand nothing of what the other says. But this is marginal what they share is the experience they are having. Their lives on the outside could not be more different, but in the house of the vice-president, they share the same reality. They learn new ways of regarding the world. Terrorists and hostages alike begin to reflect that perhaps this way of life beats anything they had experienced on the “outside.”
Stranger than fiction, it seems. And really, it is. Patchett began the novel following the takeover of the real-life Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. They ordered pizzas, Patchett heard. They watched soap operas. The author was fascinated by the fact that after a few weeks, the story fell out of the news, but the lives of those involved continued with as much intensity and drama as they ever had. The lives of her characters are filled with that same energy. Patchett creates a social milieu which, in the context of our own reality, might seem absurd. However, this reality becomes not only convincing but ultimately captivating.