BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett

On the days immediately following September 11th I spent a lot of time wandering the streets of New York City. On that Tuesday my cousin had arrived early for work. He was taking a conference call from his desk at Marsh Risk Services on the 100th floor of Tower One at the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. But his luck was so good, and his habits so tilted toward happy camaraderie, that even after the New York Times published a map showing the direct line of impact was just his seat, we couldn't believe it, and so kept looking for a clue to his whereabouts. The place luck had landed him, safe, but perhaps unconscious, unable to communicate.

Days passed, I bought a tiny radio, and slipped past Humvees and soldiers in urban camouflage, pasted xeroxes of the face privately treasured on police barriers. Until finally in a mid-town hotel ballroom the CEO of Marsh announced to a roomful of disbelievers that not a single person in my cousin's division who had arrived at work that Tuesday, who had made it to their desk, had been reported safe. Not one.

I left the ballroom feeling the bizarre weightlessness of certainty. Three weeks later in a church in the town where my cousin grew up, several hundred people listened in stillness while his sister sang Danny Boy with such beauty that everyone who needed to hear her—all of us —still can't quite understand where she found those notes.

Before all this, in early August, I read the exquisite bel canto and was perplexed by its mysterious story line: About forty men and one woman, an opera diva, are held captive in an embassy by a band of terrorists in an unspecified South American country. Armed government forces surround the house and a UN negotiator on vacation is hastily called into service. Tensions escalate on schedule, but so, oddly, does the spiritual capital—honor, the capacity to love—of nearly every character described. Everyone within earshot of the opera singer's voice is in line for a transformation. Boundaries between captives and captors dissolve, grace overrides the rules of engagement. By the time the special forces are breaking down the doors, killing in the name of freedom, the prisoners have reached nirvana.

As gorgeous as Ann Patchett's novel is, I questioned its psychology. I felt such pressures would work on people very differently. My best guess finally was that the novel was a parable, similar in spirit to Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Especially the famous end when the Misfit says that the grandmother would have been a good woman if every minute of her life she'd had someone ready to shoot her. Here in New York, as one of many wandering in a dream of just that kind of terror, I found understanding that cut through fear. I heard people falling onto notes they didn't know they had and, like my cousin singing for her lost brother, hold them steady and true. Now that we are beginning to come back to ourselves, relaxing away from all that nobility, I look to Ann Patchett's bel canto and my new question is: how did she know?