Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel Bel Canto found a massive audience, but it did so in a very interesting way. Patchett had been publishing regularly for more than a decade and was critically respected for the quiet craft of her three earlier novels. Like most interesting writers, she had her particular themes. In her case it was how disparate people with nothing obviously in common are often thrown together into families, and how they adapt or don’t to each other’s peculiarities. It is an interesting obsession, but one that had not yet reached out to a large audience.
In 1996 Patchett became obsessed with something that seemed different, a particular event in the evening news, one that many of us may have overlooked. Leftist guerrillas took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held some seventy hostages for several months before being surprised by government troops, who killed the “terrorists” and freed the hostages. At least on the surface, none of the hostages seemed too much the worse for the wear.
Patchett’s novelist imagination saw things in more detail. In Bel Canto, she creates a situation where a powerful Japanese businessman is drawn to a party at the vice-president’s house in a South American “host country” simply because he has been promised that his favorite opera singer, Roxanne Coss, will sing at the affair. The guerrillas, mostly children from the poverty-stricken countryside, take over the house because they think their corrupt president will be there, but he has stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. We’re left with the odd pairing of highly cultured, very wealthy people and a group of barely literate, very desperate revolutionaries. The negotiations drag on for months, long after the world seems to have forgotten everyone involved. The two groups make up Patchett’s oddest and most surprising “family” to date.
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.