Eleven-year-old Kenya loves to run, and she’s fast. An observer marvels “not just at the speed but the utter effortlessness of it all, the way the toes of her shoes barely touched down before she set off again.” Kenya’s passion gives Ann Patchett’s new novel its title, but Kenya isn’t the only character who’s running. Some are running away from their pasts. Some want to run for office. Others just dream of running.
The novel begins on a snowy night in Boston, as Bernard Doyle, a sixtyish white man, and his two adopted African-American sons attend a speech by Jesse Jackson. As they leave the theater, an accident and an act of heroism set in motion a series of marvelous coincidences.
Kenya and her mother witness the accident, and more than that I hesitate to say for fear of spoiling the satisfying twists of Patchett’s plot. Suffice it to say, some connections are created, and others are revealed.
Though Doyle is a former Boston mayor and his interracial family quite privileged, they endure the usual parent-child clashes. Doyle expects his sons to follow in his political footsteps. “They should be leaders,” he thinks, “smart boys like these, boys with lives of such advantage. The call to service should be coded in their bones.”
But Doyle’s oldest son Sullivan dashed parental hopes in adolescence, when his reckless driving and the ensuing scandal ruined his father’s career and nearly wrecked his own life. He has spent the intervening years running from his past and parental expectations. The adopted younger sons, Tip, a biology student at Harvard, and Teddy, who’s considering the priesthood, are also running away from their dad’s ambitions.
Teddy’s role model, his uncle Father Sullivan, lies dying in a nearby nursing home. People flock to him because they believe he has a healing touch. (Father Sullivan, a clear-eyed skeptic, doesn’t buy it.) A final family member, Doyle’s deceased wife Bernadette, remains a focus of love and unity in the family.
Family, it seems, is a favorite theme. In Patchett’s first book, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), young women bond like sisters in a home for unwed mothers. In the remarkable Bel Canto (2001), kidnappers and their victims form an exotic and loving extended family. Similarly, Run explores the nature of family itself. Parents want to mold their kids, and kids need to separate from their parents. Children resent their siblings. Family bonds, in the end, have little to do with blood relationships.
The novel’s action takes place in a twenty-four-hour period, but dialogue and characters’ reminiscences reveal the past events that have brought them to the present moment. Each character reflects on family love, race, poverty, religion and the afterlife. Here, for example, Father Sullivan ruminates on mortality and eternity. Bedridden now, he has stopped “running,” only to discover that life itself is the real gift.
How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater. What could be greater than the armchair, the window, the snow? Life itself had been holy.
Like Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett explores big questions without pretentiousness. In a harsh world, filled with suffering, she shows the need for love, warmth, and charity. Her quirky characters speak offbeat but believable dialogue. Miraculously, despite the coincidences of the plot, Run rings true.
Reading Run this summer on a flight from New York City back to Cleveland, I experienced the strange miracle of good fiction. A writer translates her imagination into language and gets it printed up in paper binding. The bound pages arrive in your hands, the words enter your mind, where you recreate the writer’s story with your own unique spin. Patchett dreamed this intricate tale in her studio in Nashville, Tennessee, and then, a mile over Pennsylvania’s trees and fields, I saw it playing like a movie in my own head.