Monday, November 19, 2007

Bel Canto

I mentioned several titles in my book list that I have not reviewed on this site. Now seems like the perfect opportunity.

When people ask me for book recommendations, I always mention Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. This PEN/Faulkner Award winner well deserves the recognition.

I read Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars several years ago. A good friend gifted the book to me, and she obviously liked it. I was interested in the story—a married, pregnant woman leaves her husband and enters a home for unwed, pregnant girls—but I felt a distance between me and the characters. I simply could neither relate to nor care for any of them.

Bel Canto suffers from none of Patron Saint’s issues. Although Bel Canto has a large and diverse cast of characters, I cared for them all.

The book takes place during a hostage crisis in an unnamed Latin American country (a thinly-veiled reference to a similar event that took place in Peru). A mishmash of people gather at the vice president’s mansion to hear a well-known soprano perform, and a group of terrorists/revolutionaries (depending on your perspective) takes them hostage. As such, the characters include diplomats, businesspeople, interpreters, negotiators, and revolutionaries. Patchett magically makes all these characters appear both real and sympathetic.

Not only is Bel Canto a good read, but it also raises many ethical questions. Although the book was published in mid-2001, its discussion of terrorism is prescient. As a reader, I felt conflicted over the act of “terrorism.” Are the characters really terrorist? Are their actions justifiable? Can I label someone a terrorist when I know her story? when she is a person and not just an act?

Simply put, Bel Canto is a must-read book.

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