Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto is set in an unnamed Latin American country in the midst of a crisis. It supports analysis on several levels, from the highly personal tale of the central characters, to the intricacies of a plot that casts doubt on the likelihood of a good outcome for the apparent protagonists, to the story's political parable about the seductive attraction of extremist ideologies. The reader’s analysis may extend to all these levels and may vacillate among them at different points in reading the book. It is likely, however, that each reader’s interpretation will depend on their own position on the importance of art and politics, and the role that these two institutions play in human expression and fulfillment.
The political intrigue that shapes the plot roughly corresponds to actual events that occurred in Lima, Peru, in the 1990s, when armed members of the Tupac Amaru revolutionaries invaded the Japanese ambassador’s residence and took hundreds of hostages. While they released several groups, they kept many of them prisoner for four months. It was only resolved when the compound was stormed by government forces, almost all of the hostages were freed unharmed, and the terrorists were killed.
Patchett’s novel utilizes the basic framework of that story, incorporating a specific target—the nation’s president—and further makes him absent that night. Her aims go much further than creating a fictionalized version of that reality. She takes full advantage of the classic closed-room situation to set in motion multiple stories of personal, as well as political, conflicts. One of her greatest challenges was to humanize, without romanticizing or glamorizing, the hostage-takers, making them characters who can provide believable explanations for their taking such drastic actions. Because of this, the novel has been criticized, especially by readers who denounce violence against innocent victims as wholly unjustified.
The most original element that Patchett introduces in this book has often been considered the most successful: the role of music (in this case, opera) in helping people endure an intolerable situation. She tries to infuse the book’s structure with operatic drama. Her attention to operatic details support her depiction of the redemptive power of art, making it an underlying theme that occasionally is overtly didactic. The author chooses to make a soprano, Roxane Coss, a central character and to include some characters who are music lovers and others unfamiliar with opera. This combination provides a vehicle for exploring the power of music, largely through the singer’s genius and dedication. She sings, Patchett tells us, as though she were saving all their lives.
The personal relations among multiple characters grow complex through the course of the novel, and Roxane, among others, is paired romantically. A challenge the author faced was maintaining tension—and the reader’s interest—over the course of many days, as characters became lulled by the tedium of routine, and balance that with disturbing, violent events. For some readers and reviewers, the novel succeeded in presenting convincing episodes centering on plausible romantic relationships. Others, however, criticized the interactions as contrived, especially when people seem to abandon their politics and even their morals when drawn into intrigues of the heart.