Bel Canto

He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. True life was kept safe in the lines of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin while you went out into the world and met the obligations required of you. Certainly he knew (though did not completely understand) that opera wasn't for everyone, but for everyone he hoped there was something.

— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

I have forced this book onto nearly every person I know, either through suggestions that were actually thinly veiled threats or by blatant gifting. Bel Canto would be, without a single second thought, my chosen desert island book. The book that I would be most tempted to plagiarize, were I interested in achieving such notoriety (alas, I am not). My dear friend Kimberly recommended it to me in the spring of 2002 (just weeks before it was released in paperback and slowly began appearing at airport bookstores across the land), and I fully defer to her judgment in such things because she has impeccable taste. Certainly I would never have picked it up on my own: stories about South American terrorists are not my bag of tea, nor was opera. Then.

He had not left, he had barely started to turn away from the house when Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. In retrospect, it was a risky thing to do, both from the perspective of General Alfredo, who might have seen it as an act of insurrection, and from the care of the instrument of the voice itself. She had not sung in two weeks, nor did she go through a single scale to warm up. Roxane Coss, wearing Mrs. Iglesias's slacks and a white dress shirt belonging to the Vice President, stood in the middle of the vast living room and began to sing "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence. No one would have said her voice sounded better with an orchestra, or that it was better when the room was immaculately clean and lit by candles. They did not notice the absence of flowers or champagne, in fact, they knew now that flowers and champagne were unnecessary embellishments. Had she really not been singing all along? The sound was no more beautiful when her voice was limber and warm. Their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all. They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly, but also for the failure of their plans. They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing and longed for the women who had been beside them then. All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.

I've read several reviews decrying the unrealistic plot, to which I can only say: of course. What were you expecting? The point isn't that such a thing could never happen—the point is that in this world, these things did happen. It's a fairy tale. It's an opera. Music casts a spell. A group of strangers who share no other language, no common cultural experience, discover this: One human voice changes everything. Everybody. It doesn't save them all (people die in operas, yo), but it gives each of them something—beauty, connections, humility, love, hope, faith, forgiveness—they've never known before. This is what music does.

Happiness, if he was right to use that word, was something that until now he had only experienced in music. He was still experiencing it in music. The difference was that now the music was a person. She sat beside him on the sofa reading. She asked him to sit beside her at the piano. On occasion she took his hand, a gesture so startling and wonderful that he could barely inhale. She asked him, do you like this piece? She asked him, what would you like me to sing? These were things he never could have imagined: the warmth of a person and the music together. Yes, her voice, more than anything her voice, but there were also her fine hands to consider, the bright rope of her hair lying across her shoulder, the pale, soft skin of her neck. There was her enormous power. Had he ever known a businessman who commanded such respect?

I love, too, that this particular voice belongs to a woman who is not innately noble or heroic, or even terribly likable. She's a diva, baby: spoiled, short-tempered, vain, and self-involved. Hooray! My very favorite sort of heroine.

But what brings me back to it year after year, what makes it my touchstone, is the intricate beauty of the sentences, the cadence of the language, the blessed lack of irony and the careful, measured tone—languorous, dispassionate, the effect of an observer always at a remove. All of which transform what might otherwise be a simple gun-toting, action-packed political thriller into a curiously heartfelt character study. In truth, nothing much happens, plotwise. They are all sealed together in a world of their own creation, not by choice but by fate and, one might argue, necessity, and they sit for months on end with nothing to do but learn each other. And when they are finally torn apart—even though you know what's coming, what must be coming—it's painful. How can a successful hostage rescue be regrettable? Ask yourself this. Who have you come to care for? Who do you cry for? Everybody. A universe of recognizable faces.

Oh, I won't pretend it's the best novel I've ever read, technically speaking, or that it's anything close to perfect. But pieces of it are perfect, and that's enough. I've tried for the past four years to find something—anything—that I can love as well, and truly, nothing has even come close. Or could, perhaps. It's what first led me to the opera. And in doing so sent me off in new directions I can barely begin to recount. This is what literature does.

"Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. Don't you think? It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are a spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world's greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see."