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Bel Canto

Ann Patchett

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Plot Overview

Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. Her mother was a nurse and her father was a police officer. Patchett earned her bachelor of arts from Sarah Lawrence College and her masters in creative writing from the University of Iowa.

Bel Canto, Patchett’s fourth novel, was published in 2001. The novel was originally inspired by an incident that took place in December 1996, when a group of fourteen terrorists took over the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru. The terrorists held seventy-two hostages for four months before government troops stormed the building and killed all the terrorists. One hostage and two soldiers were also killed. Patchett’s novel focuses not on the political underpinnings of the hostage crisis, but on the kinds of relationships that might have developed between the hostages themselves and between the hostages and the terrorists during those four months of captivity. Patchett had read news reports that described the hostages and terrorists playing chess and soccer, and ordering out for large pizzas. These details were the seeds of Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize.

Patchett has said that Bel Canto was inspired most directly by Thomas Mann’s classic novella The Magic Mountain. In Mann’s novella, a man visits a sanitarium for patients with tuberculosis and finds that isolation and proximity to death heightens his senses, increases his sexual desire, and causes him to think more deeply about life. In Patchett’s novel, the four months of captivity enable both hostages and terrorists to experience life more vividly and profoundly.

On the surface, Patchett’s life seems unrelated to the story she tells in her novel Bel Canto. But Patchett shares some of the feelings of her character Roxanne Coss, who is adored by strangers who don’t really know her. During interviews about Bel Canto, Patchett has talked about the disconnect she feels between her book tours, where fans greet her with adulation, and her normal life, where she sticks to an everyday routine—writing, taking care of her grandmother, and hanging out with her dog.

In addition to Bel Canto, Patchett has written three novels and one memoir about a friendship. Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), is about a young woman who gets pregnant, flees her marriage, and goes to a home for unwed mothers run by nuns. Patchett’s second novel, Taft (1994), is set in a Memphis blues bar. It tells the story of a black man who gives up his dreams of being a drummer in order to manage a bar and make enough money to please his wife. The Magician’s Assistant (1997), Patchett’s third novel, tells the story of a woman who is married to the gay magician she assists. Patchett’s memoir, ‘Truth and Beauty,’ A Tale of Friendship (2004), is about Lucy Grealy, a writer and a dear friend of Patchett’s. The memoir, written after Grealy’s suicide, describes Patchett’s relationship with Grealy as the central sustaining relationship of Patchett’s life.

Patchett lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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