Saturday, September 13, 2008

B.W.'s Book Report: Bel Canto

A third world country entices industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa to visit by booking renowned opera singer Roxanne Coss to perform at a special birthday celebration for him, in hopes of getting him interested in expanding. Hosokawa's love of opera is well known, as is the fact that he's a big fan of hers. He has no intention of building a factory there, but he will do anything to hear that voice.

The celebration goes swimmingly until armed rebels enter the room, intending to kidnap the president, spirit him away into the jungle and hold him until their demands are met. Problem: At the last minute the president decided he'd rather watch his nightly soap opera than attend an opera recital, so he's not there. The rebels decide to take everyone hostage instead.

That's how Ann Patchett's award-winning 2001 novel Bel Canto begins. I bought it a couple-three years ago and had completely forgotten why until I pulled it off the shelf and started reading. What motivated me was recognizing the name from my shelf as I perused, of all things, Entertainment Weekly's list of "The New Classics: Books — The 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008."

Whatever my motivation, I'm glad this was the one I pulled off the shelf. It's a very quirky book that warns you early that most hostage-takings don't end well and neither will this one, but Patchett draws you in and makes you care about the people in that house anyway, on both ends of the gun. It's a wonderful accomplishment.

And who among us lovers of freedom can put down a book with passages like this? "Both parties were intractable and what the party inside this wall didn't understand was that the government was always intractable, no matter what the country, what the circumstances. The government did not give in, and when they said they were giving in they were lying, every time, you could count on it." A brilliant book with that underlying theme serves the cause of limits, if not shackles, on government, and I rise to applaud the effort.

But this is not a political tract by any stretch of the imagination. It's, to rip off the San Francisco Chronicle blurb on the back cover, "The most romantic novel in years. A strange, terrific, spell-casting story." This one gets B.W.'s highest recommendation.



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