Ann Patchett is a fine writer, infusing her narrative with passion and quirky, sympathetic characters. She is known for her positive, happy endings.
Unfortunately, Run, her latest novel, does not meet her earlier standards. Whereas in her novels The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto, and in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, she takes risks, dives deep into psyches, and creates unusual, appealing relationships, Run’s characters – and its plot line – are more mundane. Another reviewer has said the novel is somewhat akin to a Hallmark made-for-TV movie. It’s also not dissimilar to a made-for-women movie for the Life channel. As in the movies, everything (well, most everything) ends up just wonderfully.
The narrative revolves around the patriarch of a family, Bernard Doyle, once mayor of Boston but long since ousted because of family scandal. He has three sons: a natural (white) son, Sullivan, and two adopted African American brothers, Tip and Teddy. None has turned out the way Doyle had hoped. Doyle’s wife, Bernadette, died not long after the adoption and left a huge hole in the family’s psyche and its dynamics. Enter an African American woman, Tennessee, and her charming daughter, Kenya, and the entire Doyle family’s ideas and relationships go into a tailspin.
Another character worthy of note is an elderly Catholic priest-uncle (Sullivan, the fist) who supposedly performs miracles. He is able to touch people where they have cancer or arthritis, and almost instantly (sometimes) the disease disappears.
On a cold, blustery winter morning, Tennessee saves Tip from being run down by a car.
She takes the brunt of the damage and ends up in hospital. Most of the novel takes place over that day and the next. From her mother’s bedside, Kenya goes home with the Doyle family.
The two African American brothers figure out quite quickly that the woman who saved Tip was the one who gave them away, and that Kenya is their stepsister;
they felt they recognized the two females. It was no accident that Tennessee and Kenya were in the same place at the same time. The mother (perhaps regretting her decisions) and her 11-year-old daughter have been virtually stalking the much richer, prominent white family for a decade, studying their habits and inclinations.
The young girl is nearly perfect, so together she barely mourns her mother’s medical situation and fits in quite readily in this upper-class white family (she and her mom live in the projects), taking over as a young mother might, using her Girl Scout-acquired skills and her intelligence to help the family. They help her, too, pushing and encouraging her, taking her to the Harvard campus for the first time. Her most amazing gift is for running; she hopes to enter the Olympics. Teddy and Tip had also been avid runners in their earlier lives, before they made their academic, professional decisions. By the way, their professions are not what their father had hoped they would be.
Run raises many questions about parenting and about the importance of race and social class. The story is tightly woven together,
yet much of the plot is predictable. The prose seems somewhat flat; a literary spark is missing for this reader. Recommended: read Patchett’s earlier work first.