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Love in the Face of Violence

The final, piercing note still lingers as the soprano concludes her aria. To the envy of all in the room, the performer then leans to kiss her accompanist. The setting is perfect. Night has just fallen outside, while inside the vice president’s mansion, the beautiful and powerful are moved by the music, the dinner and the anticipation of an event. They have all been lured here by the CEO of a Japanese conglomerate that promises to bring money to this unnamed and impoverished South American country.

As the music ends, the party is hypnotized by the singer’s voice and beauty, entranced and completely unprepared for the violence that erupts as a ragtag group of rebels explodes through the windows and doors.

Perfection is shattered by violence, and attackers and hostages are at once intertwined. The rebels demand the country’s President, an invited guest who has stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera.

Among the hostages taken are Hosokawa, the Japanese CEO, and Roxane Coss, the American soprano, and an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French dignitaries. As the dust settles, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while vacationing. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, as days of crisis stretch into weeks and months.

In these first few pages of Bel Canto, Ann Patchett powerfully sets the stage for an intricate story wrought with beauty, love, hope and violence.

By creating pressure and conflict and forcing her characters out of their normal environments and actions, she allows herself to explore their true natures. She examines how people react to disaster, who becomes a hero, who becomes a leader, who actually feels relief from the stress of their lives as they are now unable to make decisions for themselves. It is an exploration of the range of human emotions, a literary Petri dish of how people react to stress and the threat of death.

The characters are developed so subtly and expertly that you do not realize how much they draw you into their plights, how much you make their dreams your own. The reader is continually surprised by the nuances of the characters and the inner desires with which Ann Patchett has infused them.

Despite the violent scenario, Bel Canto is really about love in all its forms. Love of humanity, music, country, food, self, family, life, sex, and true intimate, emotional love. Patchett’s language is that of the magical realist, allowing the reader to be touched by this story that casually drifts between fantasy and reality, violence and beauty.

Bel Canto is a great read: inspiring, nerve-racking, emotional and always unexpected. It is a book that forces you to think about your own character and your own desires, to question what matters most to you. The book is rich with detailed description and character, but also with story as the tension continually builds to the half-expected, half-shocking, completely explosive conclusion.

November 17, 2003
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