Not far into Ann Patchett’s fourth novel, I realized I was reading a kind of fantasy. What straight woman, after all, wouldn’t be thrilled at the notion of holing up in a palatial house in the company of 57 men — ranging from the distinguished and powerful to the daring and virile, from seasoned by years to blooming with youth — each and every one of whom worships her as a near-deity, not just for her considerable beauty but also because she is the greatest operatic soprano of her time? Would it really matter much that it took being held hostage by leftist guerrillas to get there? That’s the situation American singer Roxanne Coss finds herself in after being captured while performing a dinnertime recital at the vice-presidential mansion in an unnamed South American nation.
There are quite a few improbable aspects to “Bel Canto,” but the handful of times when I found my head popping above the surface of Patchett’s novel to catch a quick lungful of realism — is it really possible that among a group of 57 assorted men there wouldn’t be one opera hater or homosexual? — I was promptly sucked back under the surface by the book’s bewitching undertow. This is a story of passionate, doomed love; of the glory of art; of the triumph of our shared humanity over the forces that divide us, and a couple of other unbearably cheesy themes, and yet Patchett makes it work, completely.
The guerrillas invade the mansion under the mistaken impression that the nation’s president will be attending the party. (He bails out at the last minute to stay home and catch his favorite soap opera.) Discovering the failure of their kidnapping plan, they decide to take the other guests hostage, releasing all the children and women except Roxanne. Thus begins a months-long standoff, with daily visits from a Swiss Red Cross official who acts as a liaison between the terrorists and the government. The captives include Mr. Hosokawa, the opera-adoring chairman of “the largest electronics corporation in Japan”; Gen, his translator; a French diplomat who pines terribly for his wife; a passel of smoking, bellowing Russians; Roxanne’s Swedish accompanist; a young local priest; a variety of other international types, and the vice president, a man sinking into the bitter realization of his own political insignificance.
As the stalemate between the guerrillas and the government drags on, the relationships among the people inside the mansion begin to change. Firm hierarchies begin to soften and droop, surprising affinities emerge, surrogate parents find surrogate children, unsuspected talents spring forth, jokes get cracked, dinner gets cooked, hope hatches and love kindles. Against the stern dictates of politics and the necessities of war, the human inclination to bond, to make friends, has its slow, insidious effect, like grass splitting a concrete sidewalk. And when Roxanne sings, as she soon does twice daily, “it seemed that everyone’s heart would have to wait until she had finished before it could beat again.”
With this scenario, you’d expect “Bel Canto” to be populated by the kind of romantic figures found in books and movies like “Chocolat,” cartoonish outlines that invite the reader to step inside and fancy herself the embodiment of, say, Joyous Sensuality or the Human Spirit. Instead, the characters Patchett has created are just that, characters; they’re not empty enough to “identify” with. They’re too replete with their own, particular selves. Take the vice president, for example, who comes endearingly into his own as a hostage:
He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.
Who can resist such a man, or the boy soldier who climbs a tree to sulk, or the crude Russian who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, or the guerrilla general, a former schoolteacher who can’t stop thinking of his imprisoned brother and stoically refuses to acknowledge the pain of a nasty case of the shingles? And these are only Patchett’s minor characters. The lonely Gen, the exquisitely reserved Mr. Hosokawa and Roxanne herself, who finds a long-sought-after tranquillity in his company — they’re all painfully lovable, and the intimacies that flower among them even more so since we know they must inevitably be crushed.
For in spite of the ripe emotionality of “Bel Canto,” Patchett proves herself from the start to be too unsentimental and honest to serve up a contrived ending. You can tell by the book’s host of tart observations — Patchett notes a hostage’s preoccupation with getting clean underwear and points out the big wine stains that blotch the mansion’s luxurious carpets after weeks of the occupation — that this is one writer who won’t bullshit us. Which is, of course, the point: We all have to decide if it’s worth it to let ourselves care about anyone when all human connection must finally end in loss. Though the correct answer is obvious, “Bel Canto,” a book with its head full of arias and both feet on the ground, never lets it seem so.
Our next pick: A beautiful, enigmatic hero who’s not gay, not straight, not bisexual