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I am still reeling from this book. I went on a run yesterday to shake it off and I either ran too hard when the sun was still too high OR it was a very magical afternoon because I saw rainbows everywhere – full arches and vanishing verticals. Nobody else seemed to notice them, but 5 miles is hardly enough to make me delusional. Right? I don’t know. How can I think after Ann Patchett shattered my heart?

Have you read Bel Canto yet? I put it off for years because while I like opera the premise of a hostage situation gone awry didn’t sound appealing. Over time I forgot about the premise and simply wanted to read this book already.

I didn’t see my first live opera until after college when I decided to treat myself with my first adult-jobby-job paycheck. I saw Rigoletto at The Metropolitan Opera House and learned to never again wear mascara to the opera because it makes me weepy. The backs of seats actually showed subtitles, but I don’t know how anyone can absorb an opera while reading – you’d miss too much!

In the back of Bel Canto, Patchett recommends reading the libretto (translated) prior to going so you understand the story. There are entire books dedicated to guiding anyone who wants to learn more and possibly cultivate a love for opera. I used to think of it as this hoity toity medium. I guess it can be that if you want a place to wear a fancy gown, but there are cheap-ish seats, too. Even from the back row you can feel what Patchett means when she calls this a muscular art form. It also makes for rich fiction fodder.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchet

The story begins with a successful Japanese business man and opera lover Mr. Hosokawa. The writing grabs you in the first few pages detailing Hosokawa’s affection by relating the hole an art form makes in your heart when it gets inside you early.

Certainly he knew (though did not completely understand) that opera wasn’t for everyone, but for everyone he hoped there was something.

A birthday party is being held in Mr. Hosokawa’s honor somewhere in South America. The intention is to compel him to open factories that would stimulate the economy and produce jobs. Hosokawa would normally decline, but they have irresistible bait. Roxanne Cross, one of his favorite singers, is booked to perform at the party. Wealthy, powerful, self-interested people from around the world converge at a mansion for the event.

Things go wrong. Lights go out and when they return a dinner party of over 200 well-heeled guests are now hostages held by gun wielding mad men. Time passes. Weeks and weeks go by and gradually those mad men take off their hats to reveal that most of them are children. Removed from their lives, families and work, the internal lives of the hostages and terrorists begin to find a sort of sense.

Reading this, I felt the way I do when listening to opera music. Watch out because out of nowhere you feel overcome by emotion that’s only partly your own. The fullness of this form of human expression is clear in the supreme honor the characters feel in the presence of Roxanne Cross. Hosokawa turns out to be a man of great depth with a deep affection for other people. Listening to Cross sing, he thinks of a friend and fellow fan:

That there would come a day when he would sit at Manvel’s kitchen table in his small apartment cluttered with music and they would shamelessly recount the pleasure of this exact moment. He would have to live if only to have that cup of coffee with his friend.

Some come to cherish the unusual expanse of time trapped in this house surrounded by child soldiers inside and the army outside. I loved the small moments most, like how the young terrorists who only knew life in the jungle are instantly terrified then addicted to television. Others find pure sweetness in listening to Roxanne Cross rehearse, savoring time to anticipate and reflect whereas the outside world they’d known promised only continuous negotiations, meetings and compromises.

At just over 300 pages, you feel the pages in your right hand getting thinner and regret that you can’t slow down because this is a story with urgency. Inside they have all the time in the world, they’ve gone too far to turn back. Outside, time is always running out. But why isn’t it longer? What will happen to them all, the hostages who’ve found pockets of pleasure in their captivity and the child soldiers who manage to carve out time for play and see some potential in their futures?

Never mind. Keep reading. Don’t think about what’s impending. Savor the exquisite, sometimes tender time you have with them as Patchett digs into their hearts and keeps digging until the dreaded last page. Once I was halfway in, I put on an opera Pandora station and read the rest lying down with the window open and not getting up until the sun went down and I couldn’t make out the words on the page. That’s the mark of a great book.

Bel Canto would make for a claustrophobic movie, but it’d adapt beautifully into a play. It reads like a classic, and I’ll bet you all my rainbows this book is still heavily read 100 years from now.  I don’t want to be bossy, but you must read this book! You deserve it, I’m sure.

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