Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

A dinner party in the capital city of a South American country takes an unfortunate turn when guerrillas storm the Vice President’s mansion and take everyone hostage. Bel Canto explores what happens when these captors and captives spend months together in close quarters.

I’ve never read any of Ann Patchett’s novels and I heard Bel Canto was one of her best, so I started here. It was published in 2001. I’ve been reading some older books lately, with great results, but I promise I’ll review some recent releases very soon. I have my eye on a couple of thrillers that look really good!

The dinner party that kicks off Bel Canto is held for a Japanese businessman named Mr. Hosokawa. The unnamed South American country was trying to woo him into building a manufacturing plant there. But the only reason Mr. Hosokawa came to the party was to hear famed opera star, Roxane Coss, sing. The guerrillas, consisting of three aging generals and seventeen mostly underage “soldiers”, expected the President to be there. They just wanted to snatch him and run. But the President wasn’t there and instead it turned into a hostage situation with a couple of hundred captives.

The guerrillas were in over their heads. They were an idealistic and nonviolent lot, and incapable of managing a hostage situation. So they and the hostages settle in for the long haul, never making any progress in negotiations with the government. The generals can’t figure out how to extricate themselves from the situation.

Roxane, the opera singer, begins to sing daily, and holds everyone in her thrall. Friendships form and there are a couple of romances. Some of the hostages begin to feel satisfied with their new lifestyle. A malaise creeps in that causes hostages not to try to escape. For their part, some of the young guerrillas like living in the luxurious mansion – it’s a big improvement over how they usually live. No one is in a hurry to leave, but all things must come to an end, especially hostage situations.

Opera is a major theme of Bel Canto (Bel Canto is an opera term). In fact, Ann Patchett said she set out to create an operatic story, complete with grandeur and drama. She also wove in some absurdist comedy, which I thought was done really well. Like with many operas, there were some implausible elements – a young guerrilla that could sing opera, a hostage who happened to be a talented pianist – but I thought it all worked and made for a really good story.

However, the author fell a bit short with creating the inevitable, tragic, operatic ending. It was covered quickly and wasn’t the gut wrenching scene that it probably could/should have been. The part of me that doesn’t like to cry was grateful for that, but the rational part of me feels like this was a missed opportunity. And the very final scene didn’t make any sense to me. Maybe the author was having a hard time ending it?

Overall, I liked Bel Canto. The writing is good and it is an interesting concept. The characters are very human and likable and I liked the natures of most of the relationships that developed. I was hoping Ann Patchett would figure out a way to give the story a happy ending, but it ended the only way it could.

Have you read Bel Canto? What did you think? Which Ann Patchett novel should I read next?

Update: Check out my review of the next Ann Patchett novel I read, The Dutch House. 

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

  1. I agree 100% with your take on Bel Canto! I liked it until the end, then I really disliked it. I almost wanted to write an alternate ending so I’d feel better about it. I decided to read Commonwealth by the same author and found it much more satisfying. I’m curious if the movie version of Bel Canto has a better ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Jeanne! I’m curious about the movie, too. If I watch it I’ll let you know how it ends. I’ve heard good things about Commonwealth as well as her newest book, The Dutch House.


  2. I think that perhaps she just doesn’t write endings well. I’ve read Bel Canto, State of Wonder, and I’ve just finished The Dutch House. Brief, terse and unfulfilling endings all. But, each book of hers that I read, I like better than the book before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It has been a while since I read Bel Canto, but I recall being enchanted by the story and disappointed by the quick ending. I have read The Magician’s Assistant and Year of Wonder but it has been a while since I read those too. I just remember how I felt about those books at the time and that was that Bel Canto was the best of those three. There was a feeling that the other two books lacked an important ingredient that made them less than satisfying, but I am too far removed from them to comment intelligently on what that was. Sorry.
    After two months of working on two projects almost more than full-time, I finally started reading again. I just finished an astonishingly great book – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Peter Marra. It is the best book I have read in a couple of years. If I tell you what it is about (the two recent wars in Chechnya) you will probably have the same reaction that I had – hmm what were those wars about (altho I knew they involved Russia) and exactly where is Chechnya on a map? The story is a universal one of love and family and friendship but in the most extremely horrible conditions. The writing is superb and the non-chronological story made it sometimes difficult to understand but the effort was well worth the journey. I may recommend it for my book club if for no other reason than it will allow me to re-read it prior to the discussion. How did your work project turn out? I cannot tell you how impressive I think you are to power through your horrible illness and situation and contribute in so many ways to so many. Deb Solove

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Deb! Welcome back to reading! The general consensus seems to be that no one liked how Bel Canto ended. I imagine sometimes authors fly along smoothly but then just can’t figure out how to land the plane. That seems to be the case with Bel Canto, at least.

      I wrapped up the Big Project in early January. Since then, I completed a white paper for another client, so I’m staying pleasantly busy. Thanks for asking and thanks for the compliment!


  4. I read this book many years ago and I loved it! I cannot remember the end and I don’t remember disliking it. But it was the first book by Anne Patchett that I read and so far it’s my favorite. (My Dad was a huge opera fan so I’m sure that was a factor…) I read Patron Saint of Liars and really despised that one. I also read Run because it was Michael’s summer book prior to his Freshman year at Marquette and I was curious. I thought it was pretty good but Bell Canto tops the list. In my experience you picked the best one!


  5. I read this book back in 2005 after spending some time in Central America. I do remember the premise but not being overly enthused about the book. I guess since I haven’t read another one of her books, that tells you what I thought of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett | Book Thoughts from Bed

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