Love blossoms in the most unexpected places

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is my favorite book. Based on real life events, the 126-day long Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru inspired the novel.

The novel is written with a third-person omniscient point of view. This narrative technique enables us, as readers, to know the thoughts and feelings of numerous characters. In Bel Canto, Patchett draws us into a fictitious hostage crisis. She portrays the crisis from the perspectives of both rebel captors and the hostages.

When Bel Canto was published in 2001, I was living and working for the local government in Japan. In the novel, hundreds of people attending a birthday party at an ambassadorial residence are held hostage. For my work, I attended functions at diplomatic residences. I had met many of the types of people who were held hostage in the novel: diplomats, government officials, foreign business people, and interpreters. My experience in diplomatic circles and fascination with the hostage crisis inspired me to read the novel.

(Spoiler alert)

Once I started reading, I could not put the book down. Ann Patchett’s writing held me captive. An elaborate birthday party is staged for the president of a Japanese corporation. The party is an attempt to woo him to establish factories in the unnamed South American country. The Japanese executive, Katsumi Hosokawa, loves opera. In particular, he is a devoted fan of a lyric soprano named Roxanne Coss. Roxanne is the featured entertainment at the party. She is just kissing the hand of her accompanist when the rebel terrorists stage their attack.

Ann Patchett drew me into the novel with the high tension drama of rebels taking the guests hostage. I experienced the captives terror and witnessed the brutality. I sympathized completely with the hostages who are held captive by the rebels. I could especially understand the challenges brought on by the language and cultural differences.

As hours turn into days and weeks, the story becomes more complex. Through the use of different narrators, Patchett dives into the hearts and minds of the captors. The rebels are frustrated that main target of the attack, the president of the country, was not even at the party. General Benjamin has a skin condition exacerbated by the stress. I amazed that the beautiful and intelligent Carmen manages to disguise herself as a male terrorist for the first part of the novel. I celebrate when I discover that young Cesar is a talented, but untrained, singer. The black and white view that the captors are bad and the hostages are good turns to grey. Each character is human. Each person has their own motivations which brought them all together. They are all united in their shared humanity.

With the boredom and frustration of each passing day, the hostages and the captors change. Roxanne Coss, the world-renowned opera singer, drops her diva behavior. She bonds with her fellow captives. Over time, Roxanne falls in love with her biggest fan, Mr. Hosokawa, despite the massive language barrier. Their shared love of music brings them together.

In addition to the relationship of Roxanne and Mr. Hosokawa, the novel features a second love story between a hostage and a captor. Both the romances transcend the situation and the language barriers. Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa’s interpreter, plays a central role in the novel as he is a key player in helping everyone to communicate. Uneducated Carmen asks Gen to teach her how to read and write in both Spanish and English. Each night as they steal away to the china closet, their relationship blossoms into love.

Ann Patchett’s storytelling brings us into lives of both the main and more minor characters. I especially liked the portrayal of the Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner. He had the misfortune of being on vacation near the hostage crisis and is called upon to help. With each passing day, his sunburn gets worse and his realization that the situation is not going to end well increases.

I hung on every word of this novel from start to finish. I wept near the end of the novel when Mr. Hosokawa dies trying to protect Carmen, who is also killed. Still reeling from their deaths, I remember gasping aloud at the conclusion. Gen and Roxanne are a married couple in Italy. It was a wonderful plot twist that took me completely by surprise.

I am not the only person to be moved by this novel. Ann Patchett won a PEN/Faulker Fiction Award for the novel. Bel Canto inspired an opera of the same name. A movie starring Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe is scheduled to be released in 2018. I cannot wait!

Meeting Ann Patchett at Powell’s Books in 2016.

Kelsey Cleveland is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She writes articles, essays, non-fiction, and blog posts.