I read this lovely book about six years ago, and I wanted to see if it still held up. I'm delighted to say that it does, but it's also so bittersweet that I think I'll wait another five or six before visiting it again.
One evening, during a birthday party for a Japanese businessman held in a poor Latin American country (in the hopes that his electronics company will build a plant in said poor country), the Vice Presidential mansion is taken by terrorists; their intended target, the President, is not in attendance, and so the group must quickly formulate a new plan. They decide to take everyone hostage, including the evening's entertainer, world-renowned opera singer Roxane Coss. The first hours following the terrorists' arrival are filled with fear, confusion, and desperation, which Patchett transfers masterfully to the page. As time passes, the Red Cross brings in a negotiator, and eventually all women are released, with the exception of Coss, who chooses to stay.
Dozens of hostages remain, and the days pass. What began as a horrifying ordeal transforms into something unique: a small community of people, from all over the world, coming together and cobbling a satisfying little existence from the circumstances. Neither the terrorists nor the government will budge, so the experience lasts for months. In the meantime, Mr. Hosokawa, the guest of honor, becomes the chess partner of one of the Generals; Carmen, one of the two female terrorists, falls in love with Gen, Hosokawa's translator and aide; Vice President Iglesias becomes close with one of the young boys in the terrorist party and begins to plan a life, afterwards, in which he can raise the boy as his son; Coss begins singing arias every day for the delight and amusement of everyone in the house. They live in a bubble, a sort of hazy limbo, where the outside world ceases to exist and all that matters is their little group. None of them think any longer about the "after," because why would they want to? Friendships are forged, relationships flourish, talents emerge, and emotional bonds form. They don't need anyone but each other.
Of course, something like this can never end well, and the climax is heartbreaking and sudden. Patchett has breathed such life into her characters that they become real people, and by the end the reader cares as much about them as they do for each other. No one wins at the end of Bel Canto, and you will close the book with a sense of melancholy and dissatisfaction, but like the arias that Roxane Coss sings, just because something is sad doesn't mean it's not beautiful.