Have you ever read a book that just captured your heart, that made you want to do nothing but read it and proclaim to the world how great it was? A book in which both the story and the writing totally worked for you, where the ending broke your heart even though it never could have ended any other way? A book where you didn't even need to hesitate before assigning it five stars on Goodreads and paused only to wonder why anybody would ever rate it anything less? Yeah. That's what Bel Canto was for me.Not long into the book, I posted this on Goodreads (and I generally don't write anything about books on Goodreads): "Wow. Fifty pages in and it's just amazing. SUCH beautiful writing and the movement between action and memory and imagination is just so fluid, so very human. I love it already." Patchett's writing is seamless: there are no jumps between action, memory, and imagination; rather there is a blurring as she makes the transition that is clear to the reader without being obvious. The characters' motivations are all so clear and understandable without being predictable that I just lost myself in the experience, without ever trying to guess what would happen next or worry about problems in the plot (I'm not saying that there are any problems in the plot - I wouldn't know).
As for the plot... Well, there are multiples things one could claim the plot is about, but at its simplest it's about a hostage situation, in which a local terrorist group invades a high-profile party in the mansion of the vice president of an undisclosed country in South America. The terrorist group is intending just to kidnap the president, but upon learning that he skipped the party to watch a soap opera, they take the guests and workers hostage instead, including the vice president, a Japanese owner of a corporation who the party was held for, a famous opera singer, and several others. The novel follows their captivity from when the hostages are taken to when they are freed.
But is that the plot, really? I don't think so. Patchett gives away the ending to that storyline on page 13 - we know from the very beginning that all of the terrorists will die and that the hostages will make it out alive. So the story, the elusive story, is what? I would say that it's really about the unlikely relationships that are formed, among hostages and terrorists alike. The hostage situation is really incidental to the plot - what matters is the bonds that are and can be formed, the commonality of people that crosses ideologies, politics, cultures, languages. What matters is that when the end came, I was heartbroken when the terrorists died because really, they're people first, with as much capacity to love and hate and hurt and hope as any of their hostages.
Patchett did a great time portraying the passage of time in the novel, in that it was hard to keep track of. Just as the hostages lose track of the days as four months pass in captivity, so did I, because what does time matter when there's nothing to do and nowhere to be? I also really loved the contrast between opera and soap opera. Many of the hostages were only at that party to hear the famous soprano Roxanne Coss sing, and much is made of the glory of her voice by all who hear it. But at the same time, people are obsessed with a soap opera, a lower form of art (man I sound hoity-toity) that nevertheless absorbs them in much the same way. Patchett doesn't do anything specific with this pairing except present it to us in all its irony, which was an interesting detail in a wonderful book.
A note on the epilogue is necessary here, since I normally complain about any epilogue that comes my way. It was surprising and all that, blah blah blah, but not actually that bad. What I really liked about it though was that we see the effect that the novel's events have on the characters. This is no Harry Potter who seems not to have suffered at all. Instead, we see characters who came to trust in their confinement and now, out in the open world, actually flinch at all that open space. Their freedom is almost a burden, unpredictable and scary. And this is what epilogues should do - show the effect, the aftermath, not just an unlikely happy ending.
I literally don't have any complaints about this book, which will probably be a surprise to anybody who reads my blog regularly, as I usually spend most of my reviews complaining about books, even those I claim to like. It was really a great book and you should read it now. Even my mom who normally dislikes most of the books I love is enjoying it and yeah, I know you don't know my mom, but trust me - that is saying something.