Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Based on a real terrorism crisis in Peru in 1996 and 1997, Bel Canto takes place in an "unidentified South American country."
American opera diva Roxane Coss is invited to sing at the birthday party of a Japanese company president, Mr. Hosokawa. As the dignitaries are socializing after dinner, a group of terrorists storm in and take the guests hostage. Over the next few months, the terrorists relax their harsh grip and the hostages become complacent. Some of them actually begin to believe they could live together forever. Some fall in love across nationalities, and one romance takes place between terrorist and hostage.
Apparently Patchett knew nothing about opera before writing this book. I'm not necessarily an opera lover, so at times I found it a bit far-fetched that people would put aside all rational thought when they listening to a gifted opera singer. I also found it difficult to believe how two people who cannot communicate at all verbally would fall in love with each other. When I lived in Japan, I had one ill-fated date with a young Japanese surfer, and the language gap was impossible. Yes, with love we can conquer great things, but is it really possible to fall in love with another person if you are unable to use words at all? I found that difficult to swallow.
I found the book's other romance to be more thoughtful and inspiring...a bit of Stockholm Syndrome perhaps, but in this book some of the terrorists are presented as flawed, sensitive human beings, prone to wanting a little bit of love and affection.
Patchett handled the Japanese culture well...for example, Gen's difficulty in saying "I love you," even while just translating it for someone else. It's not done in Japan to proclaim one's love or show romantic feelings in public. Even though Gen was a cosmopolitan man, he was still Japanese at his core. In addition, Mr. Hosokawa's ending up in a loveless marriage...feeling like he was just going through the paces of his life without feeling anything. I believe that many Japanese businessmen feel this way.
Even though the house contained many hostages, we only get to know a few of them. That, perhaps, was a weakness of the novel. I wouldn't have wanted her to spend more time on individual stories, but it might have helped to have a greater sense of what others were experiencing during those several months of captivity.
The ending is...well, disappointing, especially if you're a true romantic. It's clear that the book is not going to end well but instead, it ends weirdly. I don't really understand why Patchett chose to end it the way she did.
Bel Canto is Ann Patchett's most famous and highly regarded book. It is a beautifully written novel, but at times I found my attention wandering a bit. All things being equal, I think I enjoyed State of Wonder more.