Ann Patchett is a bestselling, award-winning novelist. As if that weren't enough, she recently became a bookseller. After Nashville lost its best-loved indie bookstore, Patchett partnered with former BDD sales rep, Karen Hayes, and opened Parnassus Books to fill the void. (Full disclosure: Karen is a friend of mine and was always one of the most respected and beloved sales reps in the biz.) Much has been made of her decision to enter into the realm of bookstores at a time when publishing is more uncertain than ever, people read little and buy books even less, and Jeff Bezos continues to create a monolithic retail empire that rivals the ancient pharoahs in scope. As a result, I feel something special for Ann Patchett and, having never read her work, I was thrilled to find two of her books at the re-sale shop where I often find treasure. Bel Canto is treasure, indeed.
Here's the set-up: in an unnamed, underdeveloped South American country, a birthday party is being thrown to curry favor with the CEO of a Japanese electronics giant in hopes he will open a much-needed factory. Mr. Hosokawa is a lover of opera and the administration has hired Roxanne Coss, the reigning queen of sopranos, to entertain him at the vice-presidents house along with a host of international business luminaries. As the stunning performance comes to an end, the lights go out and from the airshafts emerge revolutionaries whose plan is to kidnap the country's president. The rub is that the president cancelled at the last minute to stay home and watch his favorite soap opera and so, right off the bat, the situation has gone horribly wrong.
What unfolds is far more than a tense hostage drama. It is an examination of how music binds people together, changes them, transforms them, uplifts them, and creates common ground where there is little. In honesty, I have little appreciation of opera. What I have heard simply doesn't speak to me but Patchett writes so beautifully about it, it may be necessary for me to rethink this. However, it was more than just opera itself. Patchett shows how music can completely remove the terrorist from his tiny backwater village, how the worldly CEO recalls the sense memories of attending his first opera as a child when his family could scarcely afford such a luxury and how even the leaders of the coup respect the soprano for her skill and how her voice could cause men to go into battle just to protect it.
Patchett peoples the story with characters of great diversity, richness and depth: the isolated Diva is made human, the aloof CEO is made flesh, and Hosokawa's translator, Gen, is the heart and soul of the book. The interactions between the characters is far more than Stockholm syndrome as this unlikely collection of business types, dignitaries and dirt-poor soldiers unite behind the power of song.
After reading Bel Canto, my "special feeling" for Ann Patchett has grown considerably. Please keep fighting the good bookstore fight, Ms. Patchett, and, by all means, keep writing.