rating: 4 of 5 stars
Because I just returned from a trip to Machu Picchu, it was obvious to me that the "anonymous" South American country was modeled after Peru. The references to the terrorists who lived in the jungle, their desire to eat guinea pigs (which are really not all that tasty - not recommended) and the prayers to Saint Rose of Lima made it obvious the book was loosely based on actual history.
In a nutshell
The back cover names this book a "tragicomedy". I honestly didn't see much humor in this book. In fact, the first 150 pages or so were so hopelessly dry that I'm amazed I actually made it through the book. Patchett spends a bit too much time developing her characters (which truly, I didn't believe was possible) but when the plot starts getting going you won't be able to put it down. Relationships that would have only been possible during extreme circumstances emerge, and characters develop believably in ways far beyond what is possible.
The endless character development and lack of comedic relief didn't make Bel Canto any less appealing. The book was written in language almost like poetry. Not exactly poetry - more like music. (I'm sure this was also intentional, as "bel canto" translates to beautiful music in Italian). The characters were setup so it was obvious that Patchett loved her characters and her story line. She didn't do it in a way that some authors do (cough, Stephanie Meyer, cough) which would compromise the story.
The end result was so very worthwhile. I don't remember the exact moment when I started to enjoy the book more than wonder when it was going to get interesting. The characters - terrorists and hostages alike - made you fall in love with them in a way that was completely unexpected. It might be intuitive that over the period of 6 months the lines between hostages and captors might be blurred, relationships would emerge, and even the most unlikeable of Generals could become someone you wanted to see pull through. Gen, the brilliant translator who weaves his way through seemingly impossible relationships, said it best - that after months, there was not one person (of the terrorists) he was willing to sacrifice.
The End (spoilers)
At first, I was disturbed by the shockingly abrupt ending. Then I realized that the plot turn mirrors that of an actual Opera - blindingly quick with a bang. How I managed to be surprised by the ending, even though it was obvious from the start how it might unfold, was yet another way Patchett showed her literary talent. An educated man and a girl from the jungle could only meet under these circumstances. A lover of Opera and the worlds greatest opera singer, neither of whom could speak one another's language, could only fall in love here. Or could they? Just before the end I started to believe that happily ever after might be possible for the seemingly mismatched couples. My heart broke when not only Carmen, but also Katsumi, were gone with one bullet, and the hope of both couples disappeared.
One of the frequent criticisms of this book is the epilogue - Gen and Roxanne get married. There was nothing in the book to that point that showed either had any romantic feelings for one another, and after all the time Patchett spent on character development, that motivation seemed contrived to keep the characters together. The only possibility that brought these two together is the knowledge that they were the only ones in the world who could understand what they went through. I didn't buy it though, and the book would have been better without the confusing epilogue.
For any of it's shortcomings, though, the book was excellent. The title of the book couldn't be more fitting with a subtle irony about life and music - Bel Canto is truly beautiful music.
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