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Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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I have a friend who passes on books to me. She’s much more inclined to read novels and literature than I am, so she has been largely responsible for much of my higher-brow reading the last few years. If it weren’t for her, I would be reading science books almost exclusively.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was the winner of the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award, as well as several others. It has been sitting on my “to read” shelf for some time. The blurb on the back describes it as being about a lavish birthday party in honor of a powerful businessman, with entertainment by a leading opera singer, in which the entire group gets is taken hostage. This seemed like a rather tired scenario that didn’t make me want to dive right in. But, finally, I picked up Bel Canto, and could not put it down.

I’ve summed up the plot, and there isn’t a lot to add. It is not the attraction of this book, but simply a framework for Patchett’s beautiful writing. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I have to describe it as vivid and lyrical, much like the soaring voice of the soprano who is a central character.

The hostages include people of many nationalities, which allows Patchett to explore vastly different personalities. She manages to do so without resorting to any stereotypes. The improbability of the situation, which grows into a months-long stand-off, seems to get swept aside as you enjoy the hushed, subtle pleasure of Patchett’s prose.

There was really no satisfactory way to end this novel, and indeed the ending is abrupt and disappointing. I think it is a rare author that can write so elegantly as to completely overcome a thin plot and enthrall the reader. But Patchett accomplishes this feat, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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