Bel Canto (Ann Patchett, 2001)

Bel Canto begins with a kiss that is nearly, but not quite concealed by sudden darkness. A group of people from countries as diverse as Japan, Russia, and France have gathered at the home of a South American Vice President for a birthday party. Those from the host country hope the party will forge political and social relationships that will steer them away from poverty and the violence of drugs to a calmer, more stable economy. Others are there out of curiosity and still others, only for the music, including the guest of honor, a man who owns the largest electronics corporation in Japan and never hid the fact that he has no intention of building a factory in the host country. In fact, he consistently rebuffed their courting of him until they offered a birthday gift he couldn’t refuse, a private performance by his favorite opera singer. Her last note is still hanging in the air and resonating in the hearts of the audience when the lights go out.

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. Not only was everyone there certain of a kiss, they claimed they could identify the type of kiss: it was strong and passionate, and it took her by surprise…

Some of them had loved her for years. They had every recording she had ever made. They kept a notebook and wrote down every place they had seen her, listing the music, the names of the cast, the conductor. There were others there that night who had not heard her name, who would have said, if asked, that opera was a collection of nonsensical cat screechings, that they would much rather pass three hours in a dentist’s chair. These were the ones who wept openly now, the ones who had been so mistaken. (pp. 1-2)

The darkness that descends after the performance doesn’t frighten anyone at first. They merely continue applauding, overwhelmed by the music, and assume that the singer continues her kiss. It isn’t until she speaks, offering to sing in the dark if someone will bring her a candle, that the spell is broken and everyone knows something has gone awry. The lights go back on as if by magic and terrorists, led by three Generals, who had heard that the President himself would be attending the party, take control. They demand the President step forward because they plan to kidnap him.

Where another author might paint such a tense and uncertain scene with flashy colors and exclamation marks, detailing the fear or heightened emotions of each hostage to such an extreme that the scene takes on a soap-opera quality and the reality of the situation is lost to the reader, Ann Patchett holds her pen to the paper lightly, trusting that less is more.

In these first pages you can see the care with which Patchett treats her characters, their corporate and individual situations, and the music. Often, literary fiction is called literary because the prose is thick enough to wade through, each sentence written with self-conscious acrobatics designed to make a reader stop and wonder at the author’s prowess. Not so in Bel Canto. Patchett’s prose is lyrical and pleasing, a symphony of words that upholds her fictional world without getting in the way or announcing itself to the reader. She handles fevered situations without melodrama, even allowing moments of epiphany to register with the quietness often born out in real life.

When the President does not show himself, the Generals are outraged, believing him to be slow in following their command. But the Vice President, Ruben Iglesias, finally convinces the terrorists that the President is not there.

General Alfredo quickly turned the gun in his hand so that he now held the muzzle rather than the handle. He brought the gun back in the air and hit the Vice President on the flat bone of his cheek beside the right eye. There was a soft thump, a sound considerably less violent than the action, as the handle of the gun hit the skin over the bone and the small man was knocked to the ground. His blood wasted no time in making its exit, spilling out the three-centimeter gash near his hairline. Some of it made its way into his ear and started the journey back into his head. Still, everyone, including the Vice President (now lying half conscious on his own living-room rug where not ten hours before he had rolled in a mock wrestling match with his three-year-old son) was pleased and surprised that he had not been shot dead. The man with the gun looked at the Vice President on the floor and then, as if liking the sight of him there, instructed the rest of the party to lie down. For those who didn’t speak the language this was clear enough, as one by one the other guests sank to their knees and then stretched out on the floor. (p. 19)

This is very nearly the only overt act of violence that takes place between the hostages and their captors, and the strength of this scene is rooted in the fact that Patchett, even as she is showing someone being cold-cocked with the butt of a rifle, downplays the brutality, thereby making it more poignant. The sound of weapon hitting skin is “a soft thump, a sound considerably less violent than the action.” Even someone who has never been taken hostage can relate to this, because so often when something momentous takes place, we expect the elements to respond as they do in movies, with thunderous flashes of lightning or earthquakes or at the very least, a dire soundtrack. Instead, we’re stunned to realize that the shockwave is barely discernable to others and people keep living as if this significant event has not taken place in our lives. The Vice President, lying half conscious on the floor, doesn’t go into paroxysms of emotional turmoil or convulsions of fear, rather he finds himself grateful to be alive. The simplicity of his response and the quietness with which Patchett conveys it is striking.

It quickly becomes clear that the terrorists, whose initial plan to kidnap the President is thwarted, are in as much of a bind as their hostages. The police surround the house preventing any chance of escape or retreat, and so without exception, every one of the characters within the confines of the house are trapped in a place of uncertainty where they are stripped of virtually everything except time. It is in this place of timelessness that pretense and artifice fall away, revealing to each person what is truly important to them and upon what they have been pinning their hopes and dreams. In the end, only two characters are there of their own free will: the Red Cross negotiator who comes and goes as he pleases, and Father Arguedas, a young priest who was given the chance to leave but refused to do so.

The rigid distinction between captor and hostage that is in place at first begins to fray and then unravels completely. The days settle into a rhythm of eating, sleeping, listening to the opera star sing, playing cards, staring out the window, and for the terrorists, watching television. When the Red Cross tires of sending them prepackaged food, a few of the soldiers (who are the only ones allowed to hold knives) are enlisted to help dice onions and eggplant in the kitchen under the direction of a hostage who is a fine chef. Banter is thrown back and forth, and friendships are forged, even between those who don’t speak the same language. When the weather permits, soccer matches between the hostages and the captors are organized in the space between the house and the formidable wall that shelters them from the police; the games are cheered on by the Generals and captives alike, all of whom seem relieved to be able to stretch their legs and feel the sun on their skin.

The rhythm of life is pleasing enough that some even stop yearning for the standoff to be over, feeling that they wouldn’t mind if things could continue as they are forever. Clearly, this is a fantasy, and even as their hope seems very real and understandable, never far from a reader’s mind is the knowledge that such a situation can not end well. It is a testament to Patchett’s skill that we will join her characters in hoping for something that simply can’t be. As Laura Miller wrote on, “this is a story of passionate, doomed love; of the glory of art; of the triumph of our shared humanity over the forces that divide us, and a couple of other unbearably cheesy themes, and yet Patchett makes it work, completely.”


1. What did you think of the story, overall? Did any sections stand out to you in particular? If so, why did they capture you?

2. Which of the characters did you like the most? Did you dislike any of them? Which ones did you identify with? Why?

3. Are there any clear heroes in this story? What makes them heroic?

4. Are there any villains? What makes them so? Did you sympathize with any of these characters? If so, how was the author able to arouse your sympathy?

5. How does the weather mirror what the hostages are going through?

6. Many of the men were in love with Roxanne Coss. Compare and contrast the accompanist, the Russian Fyodorov, and Mr. Hosokawa. How did each make their love known? Would you consider any of these “true” love? How did the Russian’s concept of love differ from Roxanne’s? What do you think of his statement: “When you think of love you think as an American. You must think like a Russian. It is a more expansive view”? Is there any truth to what he is saying?

7. Trace the relationship between Roxanne and Mr. Hosokawa as it developed over the course of the book. At any point did their relationship become implausible? Did they cross any lines?

8. What was your response to Father Arguedas? Why? Was he heroic to stay behind when he could’ve been released with the women and Monsignor Rolland (the older priest who also attended the party)? Reflect on how Father Arguedas lived out his faith. Did you find his faith compelling? How did he model true servanthood to the people around him? Are there ways we could benefit by following his example?

9. Patchett writes that “without exception, these were men who were largely unfamiliar with the concept of free time.” How did the different characters, including the terrorists, deal with all their free time? Did the forced idleness change them for better or worse? What did it reveal that they had previously not known about themselves? In many ways, free time, rest, and idleness are antithetical to our culture. How does our culture’s view of time also influence our view of what makes our lives worthwhile or valuable? Does the Christian view of time differ from culture’s? If so, in what way? If not, should it?

9. When hostages begin to identify and sympathize with their captors, psychologists call this the “Stockholm syndrome.” From the outside, it’s difficult to understand how this can happen, and especially, how it could be anything other than profound trauma and mental illness on the part of the victim. But how did the relationship between the hostages and the terrorists change and develop over the course of Bel Canto? Did you find it understandable? Believable? Do you think the hostages should have kept themselves from developing friendships with their captors? How could they have done so? (For instance, should they have refused to play soccer? Should Roxanne have refused to acknowledge, let alone encourage, Cesar’s singing talent? Should Gen have kept his distance from Carmen? Should Mr. Hosokawa have refused to play chess with General Benjamin?) Did the hostages’ attitudes affect the way you felt about the terrorists? Is that good or bad?

10. What is the role of music in Bel Canto? How does the beauty of music give insight into universal human longings? How does it transcend both the terrorists and hostages? Contrast the sounds of opera in the Vice President’s home with the cacophonous sounds of law and order on other side of the wall. Do you think Patchett meant this to be symbolic? If so, of what?

11. What do you think is the message(s) of Bel Canto? Consider such themes as: the nature of reality or what is really real; what’s wrong with the world, and what’s the solution; the fragmentation and busyness of life; the significance of relationships and love; the significance and meaning of being human; the meaning of life and history; and the possibility of transcendence.

12. Were you surprised and/or disappointed at the way in which the hostages were finally freed? How were the soldiers able to distinguish between hostages and terrorists? Could the standoff have ended any other way?

13. What did you think of the epilogue? Did you find it believable? Why or why not? Do you think it was necessary for Patchett to include the epilogue? How would the book have been different if she hadn’t included this?


Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (NY, NY: Perennial; 2001) 318 pp.