by Keith Taylor
Ann Patchett's 2001 novel Bel Canto found a massive audience, but it did so in a very interesting way. Patchett had been publishing regularly for more than a decade and was critically respected for the quiet craft of her three earlier novels. Like most interesting writers, she had her particular themes. In her case it was how disparate people with nothing obviously in common are often thrown together into families, and how they adapt or don't to each other's peculiarities. It is an interesting obsession, but one that had not yet reached out to a large audience.
In 1996 Patchett became obsessed with something that seemed different, a particular event in the evening news, one that many of us may have overlooked. Leftist guerrillas took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held some seventy hostages for several months before being surprised by government troops, who killed the "terrorists" and freed the hostages. At least on the surface, none of the hostages seemed too much the worse for the wear.
Patchett's novelist imagination saw things in more detail. In Bel Canto, she creates a situation where a powerful Japanese businessman is drawn to a party at the vice-president's house in a South American "host country" simply because he has been promised that his favorite opera singer, Roxanne Coss, will sing at the affair. The guerrillas, mostly children from the poverty-stricken countryside, take over the house because they think their corrupt president will be there, but he has stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. We're left with the odd pairing of highly cultured, very wealthy people and a group of barely literate, very desperate revolutionaries. The negotiations drag on for months, long after the world seems to have forgotten everyone involved. The two groups make up Patchett's oddest and most surprising "family" to date.
What begins as a look at terror and violence quickly becomes something much more complex, as different people from many different
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