Many elements of Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto appealed to me, but the first thing that caught my attention was the apparent halting of time caused by a random event followed by the creation of a new order. This is hardly an original idea in literature, and in fact is possibly one of the oldest. But the idea of a setting in which things don’t follow the established rules of the universe is compelling for a number of reasons, chiefly because it allows for interactions between characters who would otherwise never come in contact with one another.
In Patchett’s novel, the chance occurrence is the takeover of the vice president’s house in an unnamed South American country by Marxist rebels, and the new order is the house itself, within which people from various classes become friends, confidants, and lovers. After all is said and done, though, Bel Canto isn’t about terrorism, nor is it about politics—unless the burgeoning relationships between Patchett’s characters fit that definition—and neither is it about opera, at least not at its heart. Music is important to the story, of course, but it serves only as a catalyst.
All of these elements serve as a backdrop for the real story, which is about dissimilar characters and the things that bring them together despite their differences. Patchett’s able handling of that cast of characters is what appealed to me most as a writer. But how does she accomplish this?
Many of the characters in Bel Canto at first appear to represent stereotypes: Mr. Hosokawa is the staid Japanese businessman, Roxane Coss is the beautiful soprano, and the Marxist rebels are righteously angry and demand justice for their people (even the term “Marxist rebels” seems a cliché). It’s not long, however, before Patchett begins to reveal that each of these characters has a past and a life and is far deeper than we first suspected.
It’s also worth noting that Patchett’s characters are people who are unaccustomed to sharing their wants and secrets. This bodes well for the reader, because after all, tightly held secrets must be more appealing than ones that lie just beneath the surface. Soon, the mysteries begin to come out. Kato reveals his ability to play the piano, something he hid from his own family, Mr. Hosokawa starts to speak freely about his love for music, and the vice president begins to show his talent as a host. There are still hidden things, of course—Mr. Hosokawa and Roxanne conceal their love affair, Gen and Carmen forge their bond in secret—but we get the impression that little remains out of sight in the house.
Patchett’s use of seemingly stereotypical characters to reveal deeper truths intrigues me. Like a reverse telling of the story of the biblical Tower of Babel, the people in the vice president’s house have been drawn together by their love for Roxane and her music. Gen, the translator who enables them to communicate with one another, serves as a touchstone for these people, and he is crucial to the evolution of the life of the group within the house.
The qualities that make Patchett’s people different—and interesting—are their desires, their fears, and more importantly, the things they keep hidden. The skillful revelation of these characters is the way she brings them to life.