Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 23, 2007

RUN

By Ann Patchett

Harper. 295 pp. $25.95

This fifth novel by the author of the much-admired Bel Canto is engaging, surprising, provocative and moving. Its force is diminished somewhat by a couple of extended passages in which Ann Patchett resorts to conversation rather than action to fill in some of her plot's holes, but these are minor annoyances in what is otherwise a thoroughly intelligent book, an intimate domestic drama that nonetheless deals with big issues touching us all: religion, race, class, politics and, above all else, family.

Patchett opens the story with the description of a small statue of ambiguous provenance that has been in the Sullivan/Doyle families for three generations. It is of Mary Queen of Angels, but it bears a striking resemblance to Bernadette Doyle, who died more than a decade ago, leaving a husband (whom Patchett simply calls Doyle throughout) and three sons. The statue is "maybe a foot and a half high, carved from rosewood and painted with such a delicate hand that many generations later her cheeks still bore the high, translucent flush of a girl startled by a compliment." Traditionally the statue has been handed down to a daughter, but since Bernadette left none, its future is in doubt; where it ends up, and how, are the threads along which Patchett has strung her tale.

Doyle and Bernadette had one son, Sullivan, and about a decade later adopted two, Tip and Teddy. The younger boys are African American, now 21 and 20 years old; Sullivan is 33 and, in the years since a terrible auto accident, rarely at home. In the decade and a half since Bernadette's death from cancer, Doyle has been the younger boys' father, mother, teacher and caretaker, and his love for them is almost painfully intense. It is also, as is often true of love, complicated, because Doyle wants nothing so much as for his adopted sons to follow him into his own cherished career of politics. He is a former mayor of Boston, and when Tip, a student at Harvard, develops a passionate interest in fish, Doyle is taken aback:

"He would admit that his [own] youth had been marked by a great interest in marine life, but that it came along with an interest in the Red Sox and Latin, twentieth-century American novels, Schubert, the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church. His plan had been to pass all of those interests and dozens more along to the boys in equal measure in hopes of making them well-rounded, well-educated citizens. He did not mean for any of his sons to become ichthyologists. He had meant for them, at least one of them, to be the president of the United States."

Both boys are appealing and apt, but neither shows much interest in taking up their father's causes. "Tip was smarter and Teddy was sweeter. They had heard it since a time before memory," though it really isn't true because "Teddy wasn't stupid, he just wandered." While Tip "could be pinned into place by an idea," Teddy is haunted by the memory of his lost mother and wants nothing so much as to be told stories about her: "That was how he came to be so close to his great-uncle, Father Sullivan. It turned out that the priest had stories stacked up like dinner napkins. . . . Somewhere along the line Teddy's love for his mother had become his love for Father Sullivan, and his love for Father Sullivan became his love for God."

So one son wants to be an ichthyologist and the other may -- the jury is still out -- want to be a priest. It's hardly what Doyle had bargained for, and he resists it with all his quite considerable might. At the age of 63 he tries "very hard to think of ways to keep ahead of his sons," but it gives much evidence of being a losing cause. These are "the last moments of his ability to exert any sort of parental authority." He has retained an "essential closeness" with the boys not merely because of love but also because this closeness "was born out of their own bad luck." Now, on the brink of adulthood, they remain deeply loyal to him, but they are about to head in their own directions, ones not dictated by Doyle.

Then an accident occurs. Walking with his father after having been dragged to a political speech, Tip suddenly is struck by a passing car. He might well have been killed had not a woman, a stranger, leaped out of the dark and shoved him away. Tip suffers a relatively minor injury, but her condition is more serious. Her name is Tennessee Alice Moser, and she is African American. She is taken to the hospital, leaving her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, at loose ends. Doyle allows her to spend the night at his house, but he does so reluctantly, because he fears that sheltering someone else's child could lead to unpleasant legal complications.

It leads to complications, all right, but not the ones that Doyle fears. When it becomes clear that Tennessee will be hospitalized for some time, the Doyles find they have little choice except to let Kenya stay on with them in their comfortable house in a part of Boston where gentrification is still a sometime thing. It turns out that Tennessee's tidy but very modest apartment is barely a stone's throw away: "That was Boston: on one block there were houses so beautiful the mayor himself could be living in one and three blocks away there was a housing project where it maybe wasn't always so nice but it was still a lot nicer than some other places." The project is called Cathedral:

"The sprawl of mustardy-yellow brick buildings turned into something of a maze and no good ever came of mazes, but there was a playground that kids actually used. Because it sat hip to hip against a better neighborhood, it was patrolled with greater regularity. The police pushed down hard on the nefarious elements and in doing so managed to hassle most of the decent citizens as well, so the crime rates stayed down and for the most part no one was happy. Boston Medical Center was only blocks away. There was a woman's shelter, a food pantry, plenty of resources and yet every one of them was stretched thin enough to snap. If Doyle could have been the mayor again he liked to think there were some things he would do differently."

Doyle is a believer in politics. He thinks that "it's something that a person has to do," and he would agree with another character who believes that "there were some people who had the ability to tell other people what was worth wanting, could tell them in a way that was so powerful that the people who heard them suddenly had their eyes opened to what had been withheld from them all along." He feels responsible for the difference between the lives of the people living in Cathedral and those living in more prosperous neighborhoods, though history makes plain that there's only so much that he -- or anyone else in public office -- can do about it.

In the end, though, more than anything else Run is about family, and the infinitely surprising ways in which families can intersect with each other. Patchett has populated the novel with an uncommonly interesting and attractive group of people: Doyle, at once sentimental and tough, generous and willful; Tip, purposeful and uncompromising; Teddy, warm-hearted and kind. I found myself especially drawn to Kenya, a preternaturally gifted runner blessed with "strength, grace, concentration," and to Sullivan, irreverent and idiosyncratic, the prodigal son who reappears unexpectedly and, despite his father's suspicions and doubts, provides his own kind of strength in a time of change and uncertainty.

To the novel's many strengths, one last must be noted. Endings in novels aren't easy and sometimes really don't matter, since in the reader's mind the characters keep right on living, but Patchett has given this one an ending that is just about perfect. Certainly it felt that way to me as I quite reluctantly reached the final page. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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