Bel Canto

Bel Canto

by Ann Patchett


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Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening — until a band of gunwielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060838720
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/02/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 52,848
Product dimensions: 5.28(w) x 7.96(h) x 0.85(d)
Lexile: 930L (what's this?)

About the Author

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain's Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.


Nashville, Tennessee

Date of Birth:

December 2, 1963

Place of Birth:

Los Angeles, California


B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1987

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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. They were all looking right at her when the lights went out. They were still applauding, each on his or her feet, still in the fullest throes of hands slapping together, elbows up. Not one person had come anywhere close to tiring. The Italians and the French were yelling, "Brava! Brava!" and the Japanese turned away from them. Would he have kissed her like that had the room been lit? Was his mind so full of her that in the very instant of darkness he reached for her, did he think so quickly? Or was it that they wanted her too, all of the men and women in the room, and so they imagined it collectively. They were so taken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

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.

No one was frightened of the darkness. They barely noticed. They kept applauding. The people who lived in other countries assumed that things like this must happen here all the time. Lights go on, go off. People from the host country knew it to be true. Besides, the timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights had said, You have no need for sight. Listen. What no one stopped to think about was why the candles on every table went out as well, perhaps at that very moment or the moment before. The room was filled with the pleasant smell of candles just snuffed, a smoke that was sweet and wholly unthreatening. A smell that meant it was late now, time to go to bed.

They continued the applause. They assumed she continued her kiss.

Roxane Coss, lyric soprano, was the only reason Mr. Hosokawa had come to this country. Mr. Hosokawa was the reason everyone else had come to the party. It was not the kind of place one was likely to visit. The reason the host country (a poor country) was throwing a birthday party of unreasonable expense for a foreigner who had to be all but bribed into attending was that this foreigner was the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. It was the fondest wish of the host country that Mr. Hosokawa would smile on them, help them in some of the hundred different ways they needed helping. That could be achieved through training or trade. A factory (and this was the dream so dear its name could hardly be spoken) could be built here, where cheap labor could mean a profit for everyone involved. Industry could move the economy away from the farming of coca leaves and blackhearted poppies, creating the illusion of a country moving away from the base matter of cocaine and heroin, so as to promote foreign aid and make trafficking of those very drugs less conspicuous. But the plan had never taken root in the past, as the Japanese, by nature, erred on the side of caution. They believed in the danger and the rumors of danger countries such as this presented, so to have Mr. Hosokawa himself, not an executive vice president, not a politician, come and sit at the table was proof that a hand might be extended. And maybe that hand would have to be coaxed and begged. Maybe it would have to be pulled from its own deep pocket. But this visit, with its glorious birthday dinner replete with opera star, with several meetings planned and trips to possible factory sites tomorrow, was a full world closer than they had ever come before and the air in the room was sugared with promise. Representatives from more than a dozen countries who had been misled as to the nature of Mr. Hosokawa's intentions were present at the party, investors and ambassadors who might not encourage their governments to put a dime into the host country but would certainly support Nansei's every endeavor, now circled the room in black tie and evening gown, making toasts and laughing.

As far as Mr. Hosokawa was concerned, his trip was not for the purposes of business, diplomacy, or a friendship with the President, as later would be reported. Mr. Hosokawa disliked travel and did not know the President. He had made his intentions, or lack of intentions, abundantly clear. He did not plan to build a plant. He would never have agreed to a trip to a strange country to celebrate his birthday with people he did not know. He was not much for celebrating his birthday with people he did know, and certainly not his fifty-third, which he considered to be a number entirely without note. He had turned down half a dozen strong requests from...

Reading Group Guide


"How much does a house know?"

In the vice president's mansion in an unnamed South American country, a lavish party is taking place to celebrate the birthday of a visiting Japanese businessman. An American opera singer is entertaining the guests, dignitaries and high-ranking officials from around the world, when suddenly the room is plunged into darkness. Terrorists invade the mansion and set in motion a series of events that irrevocably alters the life of every person involved.

For Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese businessman in whose honor the party is thrown, the time in captivity is rife with paradox. He never had any intention of doing business with the host country and so feels guilty for having accepted the invitation under false pretenses-solely to meet Roxane Coss. His feelings of guilt however give way to an undeniable happiness. He is held against his will, and yet under no other circumstances would he have become acquainted with the renowned opera singer who has long captivated him.

The only woman not released by the terrorists, Roxane Coss is the central figure in the story. As much as Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's translator and a gifted linguist, makes it possible to overcome the language barriers, it is Roxane's exquisite voice that bridges the chasm between the hostages and the terrorists.

Every person in the house, regardless of their knowledge and understanding of opera, recognizes the sheer splendor of Roxane's singing and understands that they, in the midst of this terrifying situation, are witness to an awe-inspiring talent. Her singing and the practice routine she devises allow her to maintain a hold on her previouslife -- and, by extension, her fellow hostages are able to do so as well. Her singing is their only link to the world they have left behind, and because of this the power that Roxanne holds is greater than that of the gun-wielding terrorists.

Just as the hostages have no contact with the outside world, the narrative keeps the reader focused on the events taking place inside the mansion. As time passes, the boundaries between hostage and terrorist begin to blur. Friendships are formed; passions flare, and mutual interests and talents are discovered. As the days become weeks and the weeks flow into months, an uneasy rhythm marks the time spent in captivity as the world is reduced to the four walls of the Vice President's mansion.

Much the same as an opera takes the listener through various stages of emotions; Bel Canto delivers the same impact for the reader. The beauty of the music is always present -- "soon enough the days were divided into three states: the anticipation of her signing, the pleasure of her signing, and the reflection of her singing" -- in stark contrast to the harsh reality of the situation. Mesmerizing with its lyrical prose, Bel Canto builds to an unexpected and poignant crescendo that resonates with emotion.

Discussion Questions
  • Describe Roxane Coss. What is it about her that makes such an impression on the other hostages and the terrorists? Is it merely that she is famous? How does her singing and the music relate to the story?

  • Even though he is given the opportunity to leave the mansion, Father Arguedas elects to stay with the hostages. Why does he decide to stay when he risks the possibility of being killed? As the narrative states, why did he feel, "in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck?" (pg. 74). Isn't this an odd reaction to have given the situation? What role does religion play in the story?

  • There are numerous instances in the story where Mr. Hosokawa blames himself for the hostages' situation. He says to Roxane, "But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion." Roxane replies with the following: "Or did I?" she said. "I thought about declining…. Don't get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if I ever saw one. I just don't blame you." Is either one to blame for the situation? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?

  • Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa speak different languages and require Gen to translate their conversations. Do you think it's possible to fall in love with someone to whom you cannot speak directly?

  • "Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, however improbable to those around them, were members of the same tribe, the tribe of the hostages.... But Gen and Carmen were another matter" (pg. 294). Compare the love affairs of Gen and Carmen and Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. What are the elements that define each relationship?

  • We find out in the Epilogue that Roxane and Gen have been married. How would you describe their relationship throughout the story? Thibault believes that "Gen and Roxane had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered" (pg. 318). What do you think of the novel's ending? Did it surprise you? Do you agree with Thibault's assessment of Gen and Roxane's motivations for marrying?

  • The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived" (pg. 197). How does this observation about the weather mirror what is happening inside the Vice President's mansion?

  • At one point Carmen says to Gen, "'Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?'" (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: "Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier." Messner then says to him, "'You were the brightest one here once, and now you're as crazy as the rest of them'" (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the "real" world?

  • When the hostages are finally rescued, Mr. Hosokawa steps in front of Carmen to save her from a bullet. Do you think Mr. Hosokawa wanted to die? Once they all return to their lives, it would be nearly impossible for him to be with Roxane. Do you think he would rather have died than live life without her?

  • The story is told by a narrator who is looking back and recounting the events that took place. What do you think of this technique? Did it enhance the story, or would you have preferred the use of a straight narrative?

    About the Author: Ann Patchett is the author of three previous novels, The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; and The Magician's Assistant, which earned her a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1994. She is also a recipient of the Nashville Banner Tennessee Writer of the Year Award. Patchett has written for many publications, including New York Times Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice, GQ, Elle, Gourmet, and Vogue.

    Patchett attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she took writing classes with Alan Gurganus, Russell Banks, and Grace Paley. While an undergraduate, she sold her first story to the Paris Review. Patchett then went on to attend the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, and in 1990, she won a residential fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Here she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, which was awarded a James A. Michner/Copernicus Award for a book in progress. The Patron Saint of Liars was adapted into a TV movie for CBS in 1997, and Patchett wrote the screenplay for Taft, which has been optioned by Morgan Freeman for a feature film.

    Patchett lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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    Bel Canto 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 423 reviews.
    review4U More than 1 year ago
    Ms Patchett has successfully extends writing techniques developed by Jose Saramago (Nobel Prize in Portugal) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you liked Blindness or One Hundred Years of Solitude you will love this book. Bel Canto is a masterpiece of writing with a very controlled technique that doesn't waver throughout the book. It tells the story of a disparate group of people taken hostage in a botched attempt to abduct the president of an unnamed South American country. The setting is the palatial home of the country's vice president where a famous soparano has come to sing as a birthday president for a Japanese industrialist. The author manages to easily juggle numerous points of view simultaneously and seamlessly so the story is told sympathetically threw the eyes of the terrorists and the hostages. The story is suspenseful but requires close reading and also workes as an unusual love story.
    alias_dw More than 1 year ago
    Bel Canto was a book assigned to me in a college English class focused on novels. This was the most traditional novel in the course yet the story was one of the most original. Bel Canto is a love story on every level. The plot revolves around a group of party goers taken hostage by South American rebels. The characters are complex and although they are all very different people they form close bonds, overcoming language barriers, the barrier of hostage taker and hostage, and socioeconomic barriers. Love is the catalyst that brings them together. Although this is a love story, its not a traditional love story. It is sometimes sensual but there are all kinds of love in Bel Canto. A good read.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Centered on the basics of Operatic Style, Bel Canto, is a well-written, passionate novel of chance. By including love, lust, and tragedy, Ann Patchett created this intense, lyrical novel. The events entailed within this novel are slightly based on true events which occurred during December 1996. For four months, 14 terrorists held hostages captive inside the Japanese Embassy of Lima, Peru. The novel depicts the passion and anger many of the hostages might have felt during those four months. The novel was directly inspired by the hostage's captivity.

    Starring Opera's famous Soprano, Roxanne Coss, Bel Canto opens with a bang. Katsumi Hosokawa had been in love with Roxanne's powerful voice since he developed his love of Opera. Today, he is a powerful owner of a Japanese Electronic company. Hosokawa's birthday was that evening. He wanted to celebrate and spend the evening listening to the beautiful melodies of Roxanne's voice. Hosokawa held his party at the mansion of the Vice-President of South America. Roxanne began singing one of the many pieces found in her repertoire. When suddenly, the lights go out, and the 200 foreign diplomats soon find themselves hostages of an unlikely group of young terrorists under the command of General Benjamin.

    The novel expands from that evening and continues for four months. The hostages eventually learn that they need to help one another in order to get through this crisis. The terrorists would not allow them to leave the mansion. They were watched cautiously. Many of the hostages began bonding with each other and formed friendships. Even the cold-hearted industrialist Mr. Hosokawa used his love of Opera to teach him how to socialize with other people. He forges a friendship with his idol Roxanne Coss. She also found it in her diva character to associate with other people.

    Through the four months, the captives are eventually granted more privileges from the terrorists. As ironic as it may be, the terrorists also befriend their hostages. Many of the people found inside the mansion change their demeanor. Those who were once shy and timid such as Ishmael learn to let their own voice be heard. The translator Gen Watanabe also learns to speak for himself and doesn't allow the language barrier found between the 200 foreign diplomats affect him. He finds his voice among the multiple languages he communicated with.

    Overall, Bel Canto is based on fate. Many of the characters were polar opposites, but with the given circumstances, they find their soul mates. Only with fate could a powerful professional man like Gen Watanabe fall in love with a young terrorist from a small village in Latin America. Destiny also brought Katsumi Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss together. Their friendship blossomed into an intense loving relationship with the hands of fate.
    CinderCC More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book as much as I loved the other one I read by Ann Patchett: The Magician's Assistant. I was hooked on the first page. There is love, humor, conflict, etc. The situation is very unique, and to talk about it might spoil the surprise for you. I felt a little let down by the ending, but maybe it's just because I didn't want the book to end.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Bel Canto is beautifully written and the characters enthrall you!! This novel grabbed my attention and I became utterly consumed in the lives of these characters--which rarely happens. If you like a slower paced book and a well-written novel, then this book is well worth it.
    fiorentina More than 1 year ago
    This is a story that remain in your heart long after you finish the last word. A timeless classic.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Most books have good and bad parts, but Bel Canto really had it's ups and downs. On the good side, it had some very relatable characters that you wanted the story to end well for. It was well written, and quite descriptive. On the down side, it was a decent storyline, with a quite abrupt ending. At times, the description drew on a little too long, and grew boring. Overall, it wasn't the best book I've ever read, but it wasn't a bad read either.
    LostinTime More than 1 year ago
    Ann Patchett is an amazingly skilled writer! Her characters are so diverse and painstakingly nuanced she has a real knack for putting the reader in the thick of it. I can see how some people may have found it boring, the 'action' of the capture happens very early in the book and is over just as quickly, but for me even though the more you learn about the characters and how their relationships with each other evolve the pages just kept flying by! I felt desperate to find out how the situation would end. This book will stay with me for a long time
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I really was hooked from page one of this novel. It's truly a gripping piece of literature. What I found amazing about the story was how although the characters speak different languages and come from different backgrounds, the language of music brings them together. It's quite a remarkable book. It should be apparent to anyone familiar with opera who the main character is based on. I wish the ending was different. (I never bought into the relationship that occurs.) But, it's overall one of the best novels I've read in ages.
    tchrreader More than 1 year ago
    I really couldn't get into this book. I tried and tried but it just didn't capture my attention, I thought it sounded good but the story was not very captivating or entertaining. This is the story of a vice President who has a birthday party. His favorite opera singer is invited to preform at the party for him. Terrorists end up arriving and taking the guests at the party hostage. I could not get into this book, it had a good idea it was just hard to read, I thought. Not recommended for fun.
    Bookclub_enthusiast More than 1 year ago
    Did NOT enjoy this book. I gravitated towards reading this book because it was an award winner and sounded extremely interesting. Terrorists keeping a group of strangers hostage for months, the book held promise. Stockholm syndrome was poorly explored. The characters were uninteresting. The alliances between strangers, who became more than friends, were improbable. The story plodded along to a thoroughly disappointing ending. There are many books you should read before you pick up this one!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Has you thinking through the end. Fascinating and enjoyable.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I felt like i was there. Transported to another country. Patchett is a master of setting. Also Loved how the characters developed and how their real talents and personalities were slowly revealed. Couldn't find my Puccini CD -- went out and bought a new one. Music heals. Read this book and hear the music.
    SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
    Musically woven and told: Someone told me you can’t write a novel without first choosing a single point of view. It’s not true. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto uses multiple viewpoints to powerful effect, riding musically over events then focusing tight on the tune of a single voice, only to twist and turn away again. Terrorism writ small in the lives of a small group of people; terrorism writ quiet in the waiting game; terrorism where terror recedes and common humanity takes over… this novel paints the characters of a very real world while keeping the details secret, because it’s not the cause or time or place that matters so much as the people. Relationships grow in a microcosm of hope where captors and hostages settle in to eat and sleep, to watch and to learn from each other. A quiet sense of foreboding intrudes like the bass beat repeated with reminders that this settling life must end. The knowledge that any ending’s going to be bad plays a haunting refrain. But the author kept me guessing right up to the final resolution; I hoped as the people hoped, felt inspired by the opera singer’s song, and dreamed a better place. In the end, a book has to close and the world has to be reopened again. The author closes Bel Canto with a curiously convincing confidence, leaving the past still playing in the eaves as the last notes rise and fall in a haunting echo. I really loved this book. Disclosure: A good friend loaned me the book in hopes I might love it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Mixed feelings about this book. The writing is commendable. Passages are so full-bodied that, at times, the reader is lulled into a satisfied, dream-like state. What is pictured by the mind lingers. But, the pace is so panstakingly slow and the premise so unrealistic that one loses interest in the beauty of the written word and ends up just wanting to finish the book to see what happens.
    Jackie Greenberg More than 1 year ago
    Great book, but the ending didn't seem true to the characters.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    The first Ann Patchett book I've read and I can hardly wait to read the rest of her books. Great character development, easy to fall in love with the characters. An ending so unexpected, I should have expected it.
    Randall Haight More than 1 year ago
    This book was woderful to read. I hated for the last chapter to come and for the magic to be broken. It is one of the few books I have read piece by piece so I could savor it like a fine wine.
    suzyd More than 1 year ago
    This is one of my all time favorites. The writing is excellent. A great story cleverly told that tells of a group of hostages and their relationships with their captors. Stockholm syndrome displyaed. The characters are so real you feel as thought you are there with them.
    TLeopard More than 1 year ago
    This is a perfect novel.
    Reader-by-Night More than 1 year ago
    Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was last month's pick by my Book Club and what a great discussion it caused!! The characters are so well developed that one is 'sucked-into' the story before you realize it. An intriguing/thought-provoking tale of what happens when a group of people at a gathering are taken hostage by a group of terroists. The terrorists' plan doesn't go as planned..and a several month period passes ..and relationships between captives and captors develops. The dialogue is very believable and the storyline raises many questions such as: "If one believed one only had only a short time to live, would one make decisions that were outside of one's typical behavior?" Two-thumbs up !! Highly recommended Note: I also listened to an audiotape version of the Book which was superb.
    rfbRB More than 1 year ago
    I struggled to really get into this book at first, however once I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed the twist of events and even liked the ending....despite the way it ended!!
    wxgirlb More than 1 year ago
    This book had a great start, but then toward the middle it became boring and it was extremely unrealistic. I had to read this book for my English class and it was torture. The ending was so unbelievable I thought I was going to vomit.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I found the book to be extremely boring. I'm surprised I finished it, it was a very repetitive, dull read. And the end was ridiculous.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    My book club read this book and out of 6 , not a soul liked the booked. It was actually discussed that for the first time in in over 2 years we switch the book after starting to read it. It is that bad.