What begins as a look at terror and violence quickly becomes something much more complex, as different people from many different countries and backgrounds try to find a common language. As soon becomes clear, however, the only language that will reach them all is in the music that the opera singer performs to break the tedium of their days. Patchett creates a metaphor about the power of art and the importance of beauty, but the book becomes even more interesting when it gets back to Patchett's personal obsession. Out of this situation comes the possibility of romantic love and something very much like family love. It is all something much richer and more human than can be summed up easily as the "Stockholm syndrome" or with any other phrase from pop psychology. And through it all, the reader always knows that something terrible is bound to happen. There cannot be a happy ending.
Of course, a few months after Bel Canto was published, we were all overwhelmed by the presence of terror. I think something in Patchett's novel chimes with our current national preoccupation, perhaps presenting a more nuanced and human interpretation of motivations that we find the need to hope still exist. And then there is the deceptively simple attraction of a good story very well told, and an absolutely memorable prose style.
Ann Patchett reads from Bel Canto and from more recent work at the U-M on Tuesday, September 16.
[Originally published in September, 2003.]