The old adage "Wherever you go, there you are" is perhaps the most fully realized in Ann Patchett's latest novel, BEL CANTO. When a group of international business and political hotshots gather together to pay homage to a big cheese with serious money (which he may or may not offer to help the failing economy of the small Latin country that is hosting this event), they not only get the pleasure of hearing perform the finest opera singer in the world, but also become the targets of a revolutionary group's kidnapping efforts. As Roxane Coss attempts to tame the twin beasts of her heart and the riled-up revolutionaries with song and style, every participant in this crazy drama has a grand revelation as they move towards an uncertain future.
Somehow Patchett manages to take what could have been a tired and tried idea (after all, the recent murders in the capital of Nepal speak for violence and high politics as being perfect bedfellows) and turns it into a character study of the inner workings of people not used to sharing their feelings, their soul's every turn. Instead, their love of opera, the reach of the music, the pain and pleasure it creates, manages to somehow unleash in all of them, politico and desperado alike, a dire and desperate desire to live, to be in the world. Roxane's mere presence, the sharing of her artistry, her command of the situation, manages to alter the lives of every single person in the Vice Presidential mansion. There are characters here that you will love, and some that you may revile, but each of them, in their own way, is complete and entrancing --- Patchett manages to make them extravagantly drawn individuals, whether they are the young woman revolutionary or the Vice President looking back over his life, full of mistakes, full of regrets.
The story tends to break down at some points under the weight of the characterizations in tandem with the hard-lined violence. However, none of it is gratuitous and, eventually, when a box of sheet music is found and sorted through, the story really begins to soar. It is the power of art that transforms the story and, in so doing, the story becomes more artful and compelling. BEL CANTO is an interesting mix of the mundane and the magical.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 21, 2011