Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. 2001. Harper Perennial.
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. Roxane Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding 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. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion . . . and cannot be stopped.
Why Bel Canto Matters
I always enjoy giving students another experience of what “classic literature” could be. Bel Canto is a modern (and readable) classic by a prolific (and still publishing) writer. The plot of the novel is a hostage situation and reads much like a thriller, which will easily draw in more reluctant readers. While the books isn’t particularly fast-paced, it’s certainly more of a page-turner than most of what students read for class; it’s a character study in which the plot is still engaging. Patchett inserts moments of tension throughout to remind readers of the high stakes situation her characters are in even when, at times, their captivity feels idyllic.
The text also provides opportunities to discuss some of my favorite motifs: the transformative power of art and the importance of empathy and compassion. Throughout the novel, readers learn about the motives of all the characters, both captors and captives, and we see that some of the characters who commit the most awful actions have the most noble motives, while those who behave admirably may do so for selfish reasons. We also begin to see who each of these characters becomes without the eyes of the outside world on them. This is also a novel about art, language, and communication, and how each has the power to enrich and transform individuals and communities. I love teaching books that innately answer the question, “Why are we reading this?”
Themes and Social Issues: Art, language, music, beauty, communication, friendship, perspective, compassion, freedom, compromise, courage & resistance, fear, and what it means to be human.
Literary Features: Patchett writes in a third-person limited omniscient point-of-view through which readers gradually discover the interior lives and motivations of nearly every important character. The structure of the novel is also worthy of discussion and analysis. Many readers have noted that the book is built to mimic an operatic structure, even including a sort of encore as the epilogue. The novel may also be read as an allegory for the transformative power of art and language.
Pairs Well With: poetry units, The House of Spirits, 100 Years of Solitude, Never Let Me Go, Frankenstein
Content Awareness: This book is pretty clean. While there are a couple sexual encounters as well as a prevailing threat of violence, these experiences are essential to the themes of the story and are written about from a distance with little to no detail. One character wonders whether she is at risk of being sexually assaulted. This fear is presented vaguely, rationally, and as something she is capable of preventing herself, which comes across as rather empowering. The only scene that may make young readers squeamish occurs early in the novel when a young female character expertly provides make-shift stitches to an older more powerful character using her sewing kit.