IS 'BEL CANTO' A LOVE STORY OR SUSPENSE NOVEL?

By Saralee Terry & Larry D. Woods

Book Club: Our first selection and recommendation for the City Paper Book Club is Bel Canto (Perennial) by Ann Patchett. We’d love to have your responses. Please send them at BookClub@nashvillecitypaper.com

Saralee Says

How often does a local author receive international acclaim for a book? Bel Canto, written by Nashvillian Ann Patchett, is the talk of the book world, having won several awards as well as the hearts of readers. I fell in love with this book from the first page. Why? Because Patchett has accomplished something that very few authors achieve. She successfully blends the elements of a suspense novel with that of a love story. It has all the components that make a great novel, to wit, a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Patchett’s plot is based on a true story. In 1996 the terrorist organization Tupac Amaru took over the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru. There was no romance in the true event — only bloodshed. In Patchett’s fictional world she addresses the question of what happens when a Third World country entices a Japanese entrepreneur to a birthday party where the world’s leading opera soprano will sing — only to have terrorists show up uninvited and seize all of the guests.

My questions for our book club are: Can you fall in love with someone whose language you do not speak? Does love really conquer all? What are the differences, if any, between the love affairs of the four main characters: Roxanne and Hosokawa and Gen and Carmen? I was not sympathetic to the cause of Carmen because I could not get past the fact that her character is a terrorist. Did you figure out early who was going to die? Do you think it was by choice? Whom would you have killed and whom would you have saved? How did the events of Sept. 11 affect your emotions while reading Bel Canto?

OK, I admit it. I did something with this book that I never do. I read the ending first because that is what all of my friends were talking about. Do you think I made a mistake? I want to know if others did the same thing and if the book was spoiled for me because I knew the ending. As much as you want to find out what happens, do not do this. Read this book all of the way through, or you will cheat yourself. I know from experience. I liked the ending, but I wanted a chapter between the last chapter of the book and the epilogue. But because Patchett wrote the book like she did, the ending of Bel Canto will be discussed among its readers for years to come, just like the ending of Gone with the Wind. As much as I wanted to, I would not change a thing with the ending because I get to wonder and talk with my friends about why they think things turned out like they did for Roxanne Coss. Ask your friends who have read this book what they think about the ending.

Larry’s Language

Be careful whose parties you choose to attend, whether it’s the Swan Ball or Titans tailgating. In Bel Canto, a Latin American country throws a swanky party featuring Roxanne Coss, world-famous opera soprano (no relation to the HBO Sopranos) to attract Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa. Meanwhile, terrorists target the host, President Masauda, who at the last minute does not attend so he can stay home and watch his favorite soap opera.

So the stage is set: Instead of hero worship, prospects of a factory and jobs, or even the kidnapping of a president, the Patchett characters get what we all get in life — a surprise, in this case a deadly surprise. Like Tony Soprano, we know we will die or get whacked, but these hostages fear it will be sooner rather than later.

If you’re in a book group, it will be noisier than my sixth-grade Weekly Reader club in discussing the issues in this novel, all of which relate to the fear of death while hoping for life as well as the usual male instinct of will she like me, will she love me, and is my gun bigger than his gun.

While my better half read this book as a love story, I read it as a tale of violence and suspense with some romance. Questions to discuss while munching pizza and dessert (or swilling Chardonnay and nibbling on ladyfingers, whatever they are, at my better half’s book club) include: Is music the language of love when there is a gun in your face every minute? Do people like Roxanne really fall in love with someone she does not share a common language with? Or is this merely proof that love, or physical attraction, is a universal language? Perhaps it is easier for Roxanne who sings opera in a language she does not speak or is this just life imitating art copying life? Does Patchett intend to create a story that mirrors the emotions in an opera or the fears of terrorism?

In this unique setting, Patchett uses an omniscient point of view that skips from character to character as they carry out the daily events of ordinary life, such as cooking, eating and worrying about clean underwear. As Roxanne practices singing each day, the hostages and the terrorists are drawn together to listen to the beauty of opera. Are such terrorists realistically depicted as they enjoy chess and opera and grieve at the first death? I had a hard time with this since my personal bias is people who believe in violence as a way of life are too stupid to appreciate the finer things in life.

Bel Canto is a deadly dissection of antagonistic characters forced by their terrorist/hostage environment to coexist to the point of empathy, proving again that author Ann Patchett is a master at placing odd characters in unusual settings. I love the conflict and tension of the story. Of course, like President Masauda, I would have skipped the operatic party for a good action movie, but when Hollywood or the New York Metropolitan Opera options Patchett’s book, I will be first in line to buy a ticket.



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