Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

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Love is a central theme of the novel. People who think they have nothing in common—like the very young South American revolutionary, Carmen, and the Japanese translator, Gen—fall in love, as do Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. Both are relationships that under other circumstances would have been impossible.

Even those who don't fall in love soften toward one another. For example, Beatriz, after telling Carmen she will be killed for bringing together Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa, thinks "that probably wasn't true." Love transcends nationality, education, and political allegiance. Patchett's message is that when all else is stripped away, love has transformative power and is a beautiful thing.

The power of art to build community is another central theme of the novel. As the beginning of Chapter 6 says, after it is all over, people remember "two distinct periods: before the box and after the box." Before the box bearing Roxane's music arrives, the captives live in constant fear of death; after the box enters the house, Roxane, the symbol of art, "was in charge." Her singing transforms the president's home in a joyous way, and the listeners divide the day into three parts: "anticipation," "pleasure of," and "reflection on" her singing. The generals, we are told, don't mind their loss of power, because her music allows them to sleep more peacefully at night. It "calms" the captives, allows the revolutionaries to "focus," and "quells" the noise of the crowds outside. After Roxane begins her daily routine of singing, relationships soften between captor and captive, and love begins to blossom.

It is important to note that the book has an over-the-top, operatic quality. It is about love blooming in the pressure cooker of an extreme situation. It is the novel genre imitating the opera genre, making it its own, and capturing some of the lyric beauty of its music. It is not by accident that Patchett quotes from Bellini and Mozart operas at the prelude of the novel.

Another theme of the novel is to seize the day (from Horace's Latin phrase carpe diem), particularly in the face of mortality. Carmen and Hosokawa die, but we know that they found full life and completion in the intensity of their love. We feel that they would have been wrong not to seize on the rare opportunity their captivity offered of finding a beloved and drinking deeply from that well. One of the beginning quotes, from The Magic Flute, asks in response to what a person is willing to sacrifice for friendship and love:

Are you prepared even if costs you your life?

These characters are.

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