Ann Patchett’s writing career started out with a long, slow burn-out at Seventeen magazine, where she spent nine years, and had 80% of her submissions rejected. She’s come a long way since then. Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars from 1992, was made into a motion picture, and her breakthrough book Bel Canto was given the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2002.
Now with her fifth novel, Run, Patchett reinforces her position as one of our leading fiction writers. Here she explores the fall-out from an unexpected encounter between two young African-American brothers, raised as the adopted sons of the white mayor of Boston, and their biological mother, who appears suddenly on a cold winter evening and saves one of the siblings from an oncoming car.
The car accident sets off a series of events, as unsettling as they are unexpected. The boys’ mother, Tennessee Moser, is seriously injured and hospitalized. Her daughter, Kenya, is left to fend for herself, and is forced to seek shelter under the same roof as the brothers she has long known but never really met. Meanwhile, their adopted father, Bernard Doyle, is shaken by these strong new family ties that threaten to disrupt his own relationship with his sons.
Years earlier, a different car accident had put an end to Doyle’s political ambitions. Another son, Sullivan, had been involved in a crash that took the life of a young woman, and the resulting cover-up led to a mini-scandal. In the midst of this new upheaval, Sullivan returns home after years overseas, and he too is drawn into the emotional cauldron of events that echo his personal tragedy.
Patchett is exceptional at unlocking the nuances of how ordinary people respond to an unexpected crisis. In Bel Canto, she masterfully explored a terrorist hostage situation, but did so in intimate, personal terms that even imparted a sense of charm to the unsavory proceedings. In that work, she artfully developed some two dozen characters, and showed how their attitudes and psyches were transformed over a period of weeks.
In Run, she only has twenty-four hours – reminding us of the old Aristotelian rule that drama should elapse over the course of a single day. But as in Bel Canto, Patchett allows each of her characters the space to grow and evolve in response to the crisis in their midst. This is Patchett’s strong suit. The scenes and people she creates are always dynamic, always on a path of self-discovery that is both believable and engaging.
If Patchett has a weakness, it comes at the conclusion of her novels. Run, like Bel Canto, offers a short epilogue at the end, which tries to tie up the loose threads of the story. But these pat endings lack the credibility that is so much evident earlier in the books. The conclusions seem rushed, as if a hundred pages of story were squeezed into a few paragraphs.
But the rough patch at the finish line doesn’t eclipse Patchett’s achievement in Run. She is like a director who has carefully staged each scene, cast each character, edited each moment, and pulled everything together without any wasted action. In a year of many outstanding novels, this is one of the finest.Powered by Sidelines