All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett

on August 14, 2010

The South American country that Bel Canto takes place in is never named, but it seems to be Peru, based on the description of the mist (garua) that descends in one part of the novel. Also, it seems not-so- loosely based on a Peruvian hostage situation that took place in 1997 when a group of rebels took hundreds of diplomats, government officials, military personnel and businessmen hostage. The rebel group freed many hostages but kept a remaining group for 126 days. If you don’t want to know the end of Bel Canto then I suggest you don’t research that situation.

A world renowned opera singer is singing at the birthday of visiting Japanese guest Mr Hosokawa. The President and government of the host country are hoping they can persuade Mr Hosokawa to build a factory for his electronics company in their country to create jobs. Mr Hosokawa has no intentions of building the factory and at first refuses the invitation to his birthday dinner until they announce that Roxane Coss will sing. An unabashed opera fan, Mr Hosokawa cannot resist the urge to see her in such an intimate environment. As the lights go off for the final song (before the encore), they stay off as a band of terrorists enter through the airconditioning ducts, taking the entire group hostage.

Unfortunately for the rebels, the one man they actually wanted to take hostage, the President of the country is not in attendance, having pulled out at the very last minute in order to stay at home and watch his soap opera (wtf?). The rebels cannot believe it and although they mistake several men for the President, it soon becomes clear to them that he is in fact, not there. They’ve done all this for nothing and so they must try and turn the situation around to their advantage. The following morning they release all the women and children (except Roxane Coss, who may be of some value, being world renown as she is) and several men who are elderly or ill. To further get the hostages down to a more reasonable number for them to manage, they release anyone who is not considered to be rich or important enough.

The bunch left include the Vice President of the country (in whose house this event takes place), Mr Hosokawa and his personal translator Gen, Roxane Coss, a local priest who stayed voluntarily and a mish-mash of German, French, Russian and local businessmen. Luckily Gen speaks about 733 languages and proves himself to be very handy ensuring that the rebels can communicate with the hostages and with the Swiss Red Cross agent sent in as a liason, and that the hostages who don’t speak the same languages can communicate with each other.

Although terrified at first and unsettled by an accidental death in the first 48 hours, the hostages soon learn that the rebels have no intentions of actually killing anyone and as the days go by, a sort of routine is settled into. The rebels make outrageous demands of the government who in turn make their own demands and no one moves an inch and the whole thing just marches on. The Swiss Red Cross agent, Joachim Messner, continues to visit, tries to get the rebels to surrender but continues to bring them food and the things they require, like soap and detergent. Whole months go by.

As that time goes by, the author starts to flesh out the rebels and you learn about them, to distinguish them. Most of them are little more than children, teenagers, who have been sold into the service of the rebel group, or signed up because they had little else. The Generals of the rebel group are tougher, coarser and a bit more aloof but even they seem to provide no real threat or fear to the hostages and after a while, one of the Generals and Mr Hosokawa meet for regular chess games. Mr Hosokawa speaks not a word of the local language and the General speaks not a word of Japanese but they do not need words for their game and work out a method of declaring check and another for declaring checkmate, playing in comfortable, companionable silence.

While all this is going on, two very unlikely couples are falling in love and learning their way through their new feelings and the complications of their relationships.

This seems to be a common complaint of mine recently, but I adored this book right up until the ending. After about 300 pages detailing the hostage situation, the developing relationships between the rebels and the hostages in varying degrees, and the hostages with each other, the end is abrupt and stilted. Although to be quite honest, I didn’t entirely expect what happened (I didn’t google Peru hostage situation until after I finished the novel) I really wasn’t able to be utterly blown away and shocked by it because it was written in such a swift and must-wrap-up-now! sort of way. And the epilogue at the end is the biggest load of what the fuck? I’ve ever seen. I had no idea why that is even there and it should’ve been left out because not only does it really make no sense, but it detracts from the entire novel and two of the relationships in particular. The pages wasted on that should’ve been devoted to the actual end of the novel, fleshing it out more and devoting the time to it that it deserved. The whole ending felt rushed, like she had a 320 page deadline set in stone and she got to page 317 and then thought ‘oh shit! I have to end this in 3 pages! How the heck can I do that? Oh, I know!’ and away she went.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the novel is fantastic. Although I didn’t quite understand how everyone in the entire novel just about fell in love with Roxane Coss, I suppose it’s not entirely implausible as people fall in ‘love’ with famous people every day without even seeing them or meeting them. So being in the same room as her, and hearing her sing, and feeling her presence and charisma (which apparently, she has loads of) maybe it could happen. Her magnetic presence aside, I did love 99% of this book and really enjoyed the writing. Maybe I’m just hard to please regarding endings? It seems like I’m always complaining about them, but I shouldn’t let this one detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel. The further you get into it, the more you realise that the chances of sunshine and rainbows at the end are slim as the hostage situation continues without any progress for months. I think the interaction was well written, because as there was no real violence shown from the rebels to the hostages, other than on the first day, and only once, the hostages settle into a comfortable sort of existance that isn’t a Stockholm Syndrome, but more like a sympathetic agreeableness and you find yourself wishing they could all just stay there, living together, forever.

This book was the winner of the 2002 Orange Prize for fiction


This book is #50 for the year, completing the 50 Book Challenge for 2010 that I set myself back at the beginning of January! At the time I didn’t want to aim too high, so I thought that reading roughly one new novel a week for the year would be a good way to work through my new books and encourage me to read books we own that I haven’t gotten around to yet. I’m happy to have achieved my goal in 2/3 of the time I set myself. My challenge is the whole reason I ended up creating this blog back in May, almost three months ago! Since then I have reviewed 27 novels, found some amazing other book challenge blogs to read and made some new friends!

I’m upgrading my personal challenge for 2010 to 75 previously-never-read-before-by-me novels!

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