"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 previous life -- 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 singing, the pleasure of her singing, 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.
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.