This is my review of Bel Canto (Italian Edition) by Ann Patchett.
In a botched attempt to capture the president of an unnamed South American dictatorship, terrorists resort to taking hostage a disparate group of foreigners who happen to be attending the birthday party of Japanese CEO Mr Hosokawa, where the star turn has been the performance of Roxane Coss, the renowned international soprano with whom he has become infatuated.
The potential for a tense drama is rapidly dissipated by the author's soft-centred, overblown style. To be fair, an exciting and pacy plot is clearly not her major concern. The siege of the Vice-President's house serves as a means of creating a bubble, isolated from the rest of the world, in which, relieved from normal pressures, routines and expectations, the characters have time to take stock of their lives, observe their surroundings from a fresh viewpoint, form unexpected relationships and identify talents they never knew they possessed.
At first, the uneven quality of the prose, the wordiness and focus on mundane details made tedious reading and I was tempted several times to give up. There is a child's fairy tale quality in the lengthy attempts to provide some logical support for unlikely situations. It was hard to engage with the large number of characters, most of them male but with a rather similar and female "voice" – the author's? Perhaps the slightly contrived, stagey nature of some scenes is part of a deliberate attempt to make the hostage-taking into a kind of opera.
Looking for reasons to continue, I noted the unusual, imaginative nature of the story. Ann Patchett creates a wide range of characters who prove to be quite interesting. There is the odd striking description, or telling insight, such as the fact that for many hostages and terrorists, the new way of life created under siege may be preferable to and more real than that outside, to which perhaps there can be no tolerable return. There are many moments of comedy, and others of real poignancy. An ongoing and fascinating theme is how people manage to communicate when they do not share a language.
So, I began to find "Bel Canto" more absorbing yet remain unconvinced that Gen, the Japanese interpreter, could be quite so skilful in so many languages, or that a young hostage could be quite so word and note perfect in imitating Roxanne's singing, to give two examples of implausible aspects. Unlike some reviewers, I thought the ending quite effective, although perhaps the epilogue went a bit too far in tying up loose ends.
Even if you have serious reservations over the quality of the writing, or the development of the plot, this is likely to stimulate lively and wide-ranging discussion in a book group.