"How much does a house know?"
Bel Canto gathers together a rather disparate group of people of varying nationalities and classes in an unnamed South American country to hear a world renowned American opera singer perform and to make important political and business connections. Gathered at the vice-presidential mansion for an elegant party celebrating the fifty-third birthday of Katsumi Hosokawa, the CEO of a huge Japanese electronics firm whose business the country (and everyone else is hoping to woe). Hosokawa is there because of the soprano, everyone else is there because of Hosokawa. Once the soprano finishes her last song (the one Hosokawa requested) everything goes black and eighteen terrorists storm into the room taking everyone hostage.
At that moment few of the hostages feel they will escape the situation alive, and though Ann Patchett may write with a light and subtle hand, it is difficult for the reader to see this being an easy or terribly ecstatic read. However, in some ways those expectations are defied. Once i was about one hundred pages into the novel i found myself unable to stop until i reached the end (a little over two hundred pages later), i'm not even sure how long that took me.
As the first day of the crisis moves into the first week, and then into further weeks, finally moving into months; both guests and guards find themselves settling into routine; into an almost uneasy Stockholm Syndrome and taking the reader along with them. Although we gain glimpses into many of the characters' lives and pasts (of necessity, mostly male) we gain very little into that of the soprano, Roxanne Cos, except what we observe of her and filtered through the eyes of her many admirers; which seemed to me to be a strength rather than a weakness of the novel. This is a world peopled with characters whose lives revolve around Roxanne, around opera, both her opera and soap opera (those they watch and those they live. This is a world that never leaves the mansion. It has transcended time and reality, in the same way the novel transcends time, reality, and difference. Both the people living in this world and those reading about it know that it will come to a crashing, inevitable end, but somehow wish to escape that inescapable eventuality.
Apropos of nothing, there was also a (somewhat) hidden staircase in this mansion, something that i am completely enamoured of. I was always longing for some kind of secret passageway or stairway or secret rooms in the various houses i lived in growing up, and was always searching for them on the odd chance that i might find one (after all Trixie Belden~of the books i devoured at the time~was always finding them, not to mention the secret passage ways in Clue~although those weren't much fun just whisked you from one place to another.) Imagine my disappointment when, renovating my basement bedroom, my stepfather, shining a flashlight into a cubbyhole behind the furnace, exclaimed "Look, a hidden staircase!" only to illuminate the Nancy Drew book i had apparently dropped back there. I did live in a house in grad school where, we discovered a "servant's" staircase boarded over, right over our basement stairs, off of our kitchen bathroom leading to our second floor bathroom closet, where i kept my shoes (i once was late for one of my classes because my roommate was in there performing his "toilette"~whole other story...) Another roommate and i plotted how we could uncover those stairs but, alas, it was never to be. Anyway, the staircase in this novel brought a tiny thrill, and all those associative memories flooding back...
Both a friend and other reviewers have mentioned some dismay at the epilogue (perhaps a sense of tacking a happy ending on something that really shouldn't have one) but i saw it not so much as a happy ending as a fit conclusion for survivors of a truly tragic trauma (how's that for alliteration?) moving on in any way they can.