Study Guide

Bel Canto Summary

By Ann Patchett

Bel Canto Summary

Get stuck in a hostage situation, discover a whole new world. Metaphorically, anyway. In a way, that's the plot of Bel Canto.

The book starts when the lights go out during a fantastic house party performance by the fictional opera superstar Roxane Coss. A little backstory: the concert is a birthday party that an unnamed South American country's government is throwing to try to convince a Japanese electronics firm to build a factory in their country. This would be a big win for the country's economy, especially since it would convince other CEOs to invest. Not to mention boosting the country's reputation with foreign governments looking to give foreign aid or with citizens looking to invest.

That's important because it means the crowd at the house party isn't made up of your average music-lovers, it's also full of international businesspeople, politicians, and diplomats.

Enough about international economics. Oh, except for one little thing. The country's president is expected to turn up. That's important too, because it's why a group of idealistic terrorists decides to crash the party. The terrorists figure they can kidnap the president and whoosh out, then use their important hostage to negotiate for their goals.

Their goals aren't so bad: they're things like getting political prisoners released and improving the situation for people with little money in the country. But, well, the whole kidnapping plan isn't such a great idea. Ethically or practically.

Okay, backstory over. The audience slowly starts to realize that the lights going out is an unfortunate event (as in a Lemony-Snicket-scale Unfortunate Event). Yup, that's when the terrorists appear and demand the president.

Small problem: he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera (yes, really). Not so good for the terrorists' plan. They decide to hold the people in the house hostage instead. And that's how they kick off a long stalemate between them and the government of the host country.

During that stalemate, lots of characters get their turn in starring roles. Mr. Hosokawa's translator Gen Watanabe becomes the guy everyone wants to see, since nobody else knows enough languages to help the international group of hostages communicate. A talented but unlucky Red Cross worker on vacation named Joachim Messner gets dragged in to negotiate between the terrorists and the government.

But center stage is Roxane Coss. Her music is so beautiful that the terrorists give her a lot of leeway. Not only that, but the music transforms everybody's experience. Because the creativity, beauty, and drama of opera are dominating the situation, things happen that wouldn't happen in your average terrorist takeover.

Slowly, as terrorists and hostages both marvel at the music, they also start to share other things. They cook together, they play chess, they play soccer. A few people even fall in love. Mr. Hosokawa, who was already in love with Roxane's music, also falls in love with her…you know, as a human. Gen falls hopelessly for a young terrorist named Carmen who shyly asks him to help her learn languages, and she falls equally hard for him. Talk about star-crossed lovers.

By the end of the book, the characters have basically become a community. There's still some distinction between the terrorists and the hostages, but their sense of sharing music and life inside the house is more important than their identities as insurrectionists or hostages.

(We know this sounds seriously weird, but it helps that in the world of the book the terrorists are super idealistic and ultimately unwilling to kill anyone. And the book is purposely a bit of a fairy tale, too.)

So it genuinely feels tragic at the end when the country's government finally manages to tunnel into the house and take it back over. They shoot all of the terrorists, giving the book a tragic ending. They also accidentally shoot Mr. Hosokawa. (So much for the factory.) That means the two romances that have been budding are both tragically cut off. Gen loses Carmen, and Roxane loses Mr. Hosokawa.

That's it, except for an epilogue which takes place not long after the events of the book, but long enough that most people have started the tricky task of going back to their lives. In it, Gen and Roxane marry each other. Simon and Edith Thibault, a married couple who were temporarily separated by the hostage crisis, are there to celebrate with them.

Seem a little abrupt? That's where "What's Up With the Ending?" comes in. Until you make it there, just rest assured that it's beautiful, complicated, and tragic. Hey! Kind of like an opera.