Run by Ann Patchett

by Ted Gioia

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,
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,
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
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

This review originally appeared in
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