Bel Canto, published in 2001 by Ann Patchett, is a melodic story of an extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome. It’s an elegant and meaningful exposition of kidnapping, but also of love. 

A group of businessmen, diplomats, and important people gather in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country to hear a world-renowned opera singer perform. They’re celebrating the birthday of Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosakawa. It’s what you might call a motley crew, but in fact none of them are motley. Instead, it’s a sophisticated group. But they have virtually nothing in common except possibly the desire for a night away from the routine and some musical excellence.

And then the unthinkable happens. A group of rebels slips in through the heating ducts, and takes everyone in the party hostage. What they want is to kidnap the nation’s President. But sadly, he stayed home that evening, preferring television to opera. So instead, the rebels capture everyone else. What follows is a unique progression from aggression to near complacency. And maybe even love.

There’s a saying that music is the universal language. But in this case, communication depends on Mr. Hosakawa’s translator, Gen. He becomes a central character, since his translation services are needed in nearly every scene. But, truthfully, Patchett develops many of the characters. This is a true ensemble piece.

The rebel soldiers are diverse also. They’re young and inexperienced in the ways of the world, except for their generals. Living in a home with this much luxury is entirely foreign to them. But carrying guns everywhere they go is not. And it rattles the hostages. This is a story of contrasts.

My conclusions

Bel Canto is my first experience reading Ann Patchett’s work. And I adored it. She takes two groups of people and tosses them together like salad ingredients. The dressing is music, for it is the thread that winds its way through every page of the book.

The musical term bel canto is a style of multipart opera and Italian courtly solo singing. Patchett creates just such a novel, with a blend of character studies and story arcs. We follow the health of some people, while watching over the blossoming romances. Yes, romances in a hostage drama. Hence the feeling that these characters start to lose the defined line between aggressor and victim.

Through it all, Patchett weaves the melody of musical tastes and performance. The opera singer, Roxanne Coss, becomes both mother figure and object of desire. She draws her audience in, and uses music to create a kind of harmony unknown in diverse groups. This is a cultured version of the reality show, Big Brother.

If you like intense character studies and locked room mysteries, this might be the book for you. There’s not much mystery, except for the question of how it will end for the hostages and their captors. But every step of the way is intriguing. For me, it was well worth my time.