Bel Canto opens at the birthday party of Japanese industrial titan Katsumi Hosokawa in the small, unnamed South American country that is trying to woo Mr. Hosokawa into building his next factory in their country. When Mr. Hosokawa declines the invitation, because he has no intentions of bringing his business there, the host country persuades famed opera soprano Roxanne Coss to sing at the party which in turn convinces opera fanatic Mr. Hosokawa to attend. Shortly after Roxanne Coss finishes her set the light goes out and a group of terrorist descend on the party through the air vents.
When the terrorists realize the president of the country isn’t in attendance they take the whole party hostage while they scramble to change their plans. Vacationing Swiss Red Cross negotiator Messner gets involved and, after it becomes abundantly clear the terrorists can’t keep the hundred or so party guests hostage, all the women, except for Roxanne Coss, the infirm and the men who are clearly not worth any (potential ransom) money are let go. The party was a multicultural affair and even when dozens of guests are free to go the remaining hostages are a veritable melting pot of language and culture. There are the Russians and French as well the Japanese Mr. Hosokawa and the American Miss Coss. There is the Spanish speaking Vice President, whose house the party was at, and the Spanish priest who refuses to leave even when all the other working class men are let go as well as the terrorists who speak a combination of Spanish and some other language from the jungle they live in. Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, Gen, becomes an indispensable part of the hostages’ and terrorists’ lives as he translates everything from negotiations to cook lessons to romance.
“It was never the right time or it was always the right time, depending on how you looked at it.”
Bel Canto is an incredibly well written book complete with a variety of characters stemming from multiple socioeconomic backgrounds as well as various countries of origin and yet nothing really happens… There are a few romantic subplots, made more difficult for those involved by all the language barriers, and the tense feelings that frequently come up with big personalities are stuck together in close living quarters but for a novel focusing on hostages and their captors there aren’t very high stakes. Overall Patchett has a lot of flowery language with very little plot. It is a meandering, sometimes pointless journey but it is a beautiful one to take.