"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto is the story of a group of elites in an unnamed Latin American country who are taken hostage by a group of terrorists. What was meant to be a "simple" kidnapping of the country's president went afoul when the president was not present, and so they decide to take over the entire party and hold everyone hostage. Among them is the rich businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, whose birthday the party was for; Mr. Hosokawa's translater, Gen; world-reknown soprano Roxanne Coss, and the vice-president of the country.

As weeks turn to months, alliances and friendships begin to form between the hostages and between the hostages and the terrorists. Soon, they become so comfortable with one another that no one really wants to leave and return to their humdrum existence in the real world. Everyday, Coss performs for them, and everyday, their negotiator brings back whatever needs they have, including imported shampoo, and such.

But I think the more important point was that love can overcome barriers like being from different societies or classes or not even being able to speak the same language. On that level I thought the book really worked because most of the main characters loved someone despite the odds. Gen the translator and Carmen the terrorist loved each other despite the difference in age, culture, and background. Roxanne the American singer and Mr. Hasakawa the Japanese CEO loved each other though they could not speak the other's language. Ruben the vice-president and Oscar Mendoza the construction boss loved Ishmael like a son though he was a terrorist. Even Simon Thibault loved his wife more and more though she was on the outside while he was trapped in the house. So in the end the book was about love though not really what you'd call a romance.

I fell for the whole thing, hook, line and sinker. I loved these people. I wanted them to be okay. I found the story engaging, the soprano indomitable (aren't we all?), and the music handled perfectly.

That's where the bad end part comes in. After some two hundred pages of build-up, during which I began to feel like I knew these characters, the ending is bundled up and off-stage in about four pages, leaving me feeling a little like I got the bum's rush.

I just wanted MORE...I was left entirely unsatisfied by the author's uncomprising butchery of the terrorists, along with perhaps the best-loved of the hostages. I was left more than unsatisfied by her refusal to follow up on ANY of the others except Gen, Roxane, and Simon. And I was utterly mystified by the marriage of Gen and Roxane; it just made no sense to me at all, partly because I was given no context for it.

So I do recommend this because there is much to love - but prepared to be disappointed in the end.

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