When I hear Roxane sing I am still able to think well of the world… This is a world in which someone could have written such music, a world in which she can still sing that music with so much compassion. That’s proof of something, isn’t it?
When I have felt disconnected from the world, and certain that there was nothing for me to look forward to in such an ugly place, listening to Beethoven’s sixth symphony made me feel that there must be something to hope for even when I couldn’t see it. If you have ever felt that way about any music at all, Bel Canto will speak to you on some level.
I wasn’t expecting to like it very much. I often have trouble with contemporary fiction because of what I find to be overly graphic, bordering on sadistic levels of violence, or overly self-conscious prose manifested in flowery descriptions and cheap gimmicks, or over-reliance on “twists” that do not make up for the flatness of the overall novel.
Instead, in a book about terrorists who take a group of hostages, there is oddly little violence, and the violence that is there actually moves the plot forward instead of being purely incidental. The terrorists take over a large birthday party, thinking their country’s president is in attendance. Once they take inventory of the guests, they find that the president stayed home that night to watch his favorite soap opera, and that they are now, in some sense, as trapped as their hostages. Weeks go by, negotiations are at a stand-still, and, compelled by the star power of the world-famous soprano, Roxane Coss, who was performing at the party, hostages and terrorists alike begin to feel the necessity of contributing what talent and beauty they have to breaking the monotony and filling their days.
Patchett seems to be the rare writer who understands that if you start with the right characters and are true to their personalities, the reader will be interested in watching them do anything. We see people singing and playing piano, cooking, cleaning, playing chess, running, playing soccer, having sex, and watching television. But because of the situation they’re all in, and the people that they are, the characters’ actions mean something.
It’s notable that although nothing physically impossible occurs at any point, the book has the quality of magical realism, perhaps introduced by the superhuman voice of Roxane Coss, who, apparently, can sing anything so beautifully she can bend terrorists to her will. This quality is then heightened by the revelation that so many of her captors and fellow hostages have surprising talents of their own. I must add that although the book is by no means inaccessible to non-opera-lovers, my reading of it was enhanced by my ability to mentally hear the songs Roxane sings while I read.
At first reading, I was confused by the epilogue, but I re-read it more carefully and realized that though Patchett was being sparing with her explanations, the ending made sense. During everything that came before, though, I was more than appreciative of how her narration seemed to melt away, and leave me in unobstructed full contact with these people and this story.