In most cases, knowing how a story will end somehow mutes its impact. But Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is such an absorbing, richly drawn character study that the ending, though pretty much inevitable, still packs a wallop.
The book chronicles what happens when a gang of terrorists takes over a birthday party held at the home of the vice president of an unidentified South American country. Though it’s obvious that there’s no possible way this can end well, Patchett’s characters – hostages and terrorists alike – are all so believably human that she still manages to create suspense.
The story begins with a birthday party held for Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman that the South American country is trying to woo into doing business there. However, Hosokawa has no intention of helping the country. He has only come to the party on the promise of hearing opera diva Roxanne Coss, hired to sing at the party.
After Roxanne sings, a pack of gun-wielding terrorists invade the party, taking everyone hostage. Slowly, the terrorists pare the hostages down to a small group (by releasing some, not killing them), who stay in the vice president’s house for several weeks, fashioning a new kind of life for themselves. The setup allows the reader to see the story from the viewpoint of nearly ten different characters, and weaves together themes as diverse as music, politics, language, religion and soap operas. This all could seem confusing, but instead gives the novel a rich perspective.
That’s because Patchett’s characters are such vivid, interesting people – Hosokawa, Roxanne, Hosokawa’s translator Gen, the country’s vice president, and even many of the terrorists are presented in such full detail that the obvious danger of the situation is even more heightened. Not only do we want the hostages to live, but we even sympathize with their captors, many of whom are young kids. There are no clear good guys or bad guys in the story. Everyone has a plausible motive for behaving as they do, and even essentially blameless characters share some guilt for what has happened.
The relationships that blossom between many of the characters also are realistic and fascinating, from the budding romance between Hosokawa and Roxanne, to the fatherly feelings that the vice president holds for one of the terrorists. The result is a novel that will keep you compulsively turning pages throughout, and stay with you long after the last page is turned.