Characters and Motivations
• What differing circumstances bring each of the main characters to the party?
• What do we learn about the main characters through their initial reaction to their situation?
• Who is the main character/protagonist in the novel?
• Explore the hold Roxane Coss has over the other characters, both captor and captive. Why is everyone seemingly in love
• How do each of the main characters change over the course of their detention? How does each reconsider their lives, their futures? Track their emotional and psychological shifts.
• How do the differing stories parallel or diverge from one another?
• Which character is most fundamentally changed by this
• How does each character see him- or herself before they make
the trip? Do they see themselves differently at the end of the story?
• Compare the love affairs of Gen and Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. What defines each relationship?
• Wha role does religious faith, home life or cultural expectations or mores play in each character’s reaction to the hostage taking?
• What do you admire or dislike about each character? Does this opinion change over the course of the novel?
• How do the complicated issues surrounding race and class affect trust and other aspects of the characters’ relationships?
• How are class issues played out even within the larger groups of hostage and rebel?
• Several characters (from the priest in the beginning to Mr. Hosokawa in the end) make great, life-altering sacrifices. Discuss the nature of these sacrifices and their seeming necessity.
• This type of writing asks that we attempt to gain insight into and empathize with characters who might on the surface seem very unlike us; indeed part of the pleasure we get derives from feeling that we are getting inside others’ heads and lives and satisfying our curiosity. Therefore it is pertinent to ask: How do these characters show curiosity about, insight into or empathy for other characters? Where is lack of such traits an issue?
Issues and Themes
• One definition of “bel canto” is “a style of operatic singing characterized by full, even tones and a brilliant display of vocal technique” or, more simply, “fine singing.” How does this title serve to describe the story as a whole?
• The book begins with an enigmatic kiss. How does this serve to foreshadow later events?
• What role does the Catholic faith play in the book (for different characters)?
• What is the role of Father Arguedas throughout the story? How does he represent the Catholic church?
• How are class issues presented in the novel?
• Mr. Hosokawa is being wooed by the country’s government to build a plant there, and several other party guests are hoping to make money off the country’s economic incentives. How do such economic concerns speak to the class issues present in the novel?
• Several of the characters (especially the captors) in the novel desire to learn a skill, from speaking a language to understanding music to playing chess. Would earlier educational opportunities for the hostage takers have made it less likely that they would have been involved in this event?
• How is corruption of different kinds displayed in the narrative and how is it confronted by different characters?
• The Stockholm Syndrome is addressed in the book in terms of the relationships that form between the two factions and in the compassionate manner in which the hostage takers are treated by the author. How do you feel about the captors and their actions? Did your feelings about them change over the course of the book? Do you believe that the Stockholm Syndrome comes into play in the charaacters’ relationships?
• Mr. Hosokawa frequently assigns blames to himself for the hostages’ situation. He says to Roxane, “But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion.” Roxane replies, “Or did I?” Is either one to blame? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?
• How are various gender relations portrayed?
• The hostage takers are acting against a government they consider oppressive and unjust. Do human rights violations by governments justify their actions? Are they terrorists or freedom fighters? Is there a difference?
• How are marital and sexual relationships represented and how do these change over the course of the novel?
• In what ways are the concepts of family and home expressed or remembered by the different characters?
• Carmen asks Gen if it would be so awful to remain in the house because she is leading a better life there with the hostage-takers and other hostages than in the hills with the rebels. Does this aptly reflect the reality of Carmen’s life and does this shed light on and offer understanding about why the rebels have taken over?
• The author tells us that Gen also believed that he and others were happier there. Do you think this is true of other hostages?
• How is the issue of survival characterized and approached in terms of each character’s situation and beliefs?
• How is the world outside the mansion portrayed compared to what is going on inside? How does that world change, as far as the hostages know?
• How is the enjoyment of music (listening as well as playing/performing) portrayed? How do the different characters react to Roxanne’s singing?
• In what ways is music equated with love?
The Author’s Craft
• How do the two epigraphs (from operas by Bellini and Mozart) set the stage for the narrative to come?
• How does the book’s Prologue set up the cultural and geographical setting of the book? How is a sense of place established?
• Patchett reveals on page 13 that “in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.” Why would she offer readers this knowledge up front?
• How do the elements of magic realism function within the novel?
• Discuss the role of the omniscient narrator of Bel Canto (who is looking back at the events) and how this style conveys information about multiple characters.
• How would the narrative’s effect differ if the story had been told in the present tense instead of as a narrator recounting past events?
• The entire novel takes place in one house, for the most part in one room. How does this confinement of the narrative action function to create or illuminate the psychological experiences of the characters?
• What makes this story so compelling? What is it about tragedy and loss that attracts our interest?
• What is the significance of the book ending with a new, unknown story about to begin? What does it say about the importance of storytelling?
• What portions or aspects of the writing did you find most artful and/or enjoyable to read?
Speculative Questions for Discussion or Writing
• Consider how the different characters see fate and their own part in their own futures. What is the author telling us about free will?
• Would the story be possible and convincing without the epilogue? More so?
Related Writing Projects
• Write a love letter from one character to another who speaks a different language (and with whom they therefore have never had a live conversation) and have the recipient write back.
• Write a new ending for Bel Canto, one in which all the captors do not die. Can Gen and Carmen stay together? Do Mr. Hosokawa and Roxanne end up together?