Thursday, September 24, 2009

Book Review: Bel Canto

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, is a rewarding read on so many levels I can't begin to cover them all. I think what stayed with me the longest is that it is about boundaries and barriers and about how people cross them (or ignore them) is what defines them.

The book opens at the end of a private performance by Roxanne Coss, a renowned opera soprano's, for a host of dignitaries at the lavish mansion of a South American vice-president in celebration of the birthday of Mr. Hosokawa. He was an opera fanatic and the founder and chairman of Japan's largest electronics corporation and the hope was that he would build a factory in the host company.

The first boundary is crossed when the lights go out and the accompanist leans over and sneaks a 'strong and passionate' kiss onto Roxanne's lips and thereby crosses over, doing what 'all the men and women in the room...collectively' desire.

We soon learn the lights were extinguished by a band of marauding revolutionaries who look to kidnap the president who is not even in attendance at the event. A stalemate ensues that allows both the terrorists and the hostages opportunity to enjoy the music that Roxanne and others provide--a music that seems to cross the boundaries of the dangers present and unite everyone in a beautiful, harmonious existence.

Ann Patchett’s liquid language and unique tale about a likely but unlikely scenario as both the bad guys and the good guys become hostage to the rapture of music; hostages fall in love with their captors and untouchable opera divas fall in love with their admirers. It is as deceiving in its simplicity as it is simple in its message.

Bel Canto is a story about what constitutes barriers, what nourishes them and what happens on either side. There are many. First, there is the kiss. Then there is the wall that divides the mansion from the town--the dignitaries from the working class. There are the guns that separate the hostages from the renegades. There is the barrier of language among the 38 hostages and their captors. There are the barriers that the large corporations and governments put on their employees and citizens. There are the cultural barriers that forbid young female revolutionaries to fall in love with corporate interpreters; or, American opera stars to fall in love with Japanese CEOs; or, militant generals to teach chess to their teenage foot soldiers; or, entrepreneurs to play piano for militants. All of these are lyrically crossed.

Through it all we read about the beautiful music, which brings everyone together in appreciation and we come to love Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s interpreter, who brings everyone together in language.

But all this happens in a most unlikely world, a Camelot given temporary sustenance by circumstance--a dream that can never come true.

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