Run By Ann Patchett
"In my novels," Ann Patchett writes, "I like to bring together a group of disparate characters, throw them into an unexpected situation, and explore the consequences." This is no exception in her most recent novel Run. We begin with the death of Bernadette Doyle. Her story is told as we meet her husband, Bernard, and her adopted sons, Tip and Teddy.
Bernadette and Bernard had one son, Sullivan, and after many miscarriages over several years, they adopted two brothers, and infant and a toddler. Black children who would now be raised by white parents. These boys were given up for adoption by their birth mother and, by fate lose their adoptive mother who dies when they are still very young.
Their father, Bernard Doyle, however is an exemplary father and raises his sons well.
These boys have every privilege, an affluent home, a devoted father, a fine education, and each other. The older son, Sullivan, for some reason (revealed much later in the story), has left the family.
The story proper now begins - boys are grown up, university students, Tip is a student of science at Harvard, and Teddy has a secret desire to be a priest, like his mother's Uncle Sullivan, who he visits daily. On a stormy winter night, Tip and Teddy accompany their father to a lecture by Jesse Jackson.
Bernard Doyle had once been the mayor of Boston and his most fervent desire is that his sons will become politicians as well. Tip and Teddy come to please their father but neither has any intention of becoming involved in politics for any reason. It is after the lecture that an event takes place that will become the pivotal moment in all of their lives. Tip steps off the sidewalk into the path of an SUV, and is pushed out of its way by a black woman, who is herself badly injured. Tip has only a badly broken ankle as a result.
This woman is accompanied by a young girl who now becomes the responsibility of the Doyle's when they all arrive at the medical centre, and it appears that there is no one else to care for the child, Kenya.
It is always difficult, when reviewing a book that is very plot driven, to know how much to tell of the story and how much to hide.
In this novel so much of the pleasure is in reading it as the story is revealed.
Ann Patchett's writing is a delight. She is a fabulous storyteller, and she spins out her story very carefully, as she takes us along the path she steers her characters on.
As these characters become more and more involved in each others lives the questions the reader considers evolve.
Tip thinks of his own childhood, as opposed to that lived by Kenya. Tip often visited the pond where Thoreau lived - Kenya had never heard of it.
He contemplates the difference between the lives of the poor black of Boston, and the white world in which he and his brother have been raised, as the sons of a comparatively wealthy white man.
"The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." Bernard Doyle quoted Thoreau. "Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly." But Bernard Doyle did treat his sons "thus tenderly" and they have grown into good men. As Tip remembers the day his father took him to Walden Pond he thinks of Kenya and how she must be handled delicately at this time.
We consider memory - our memory of those we loved who have died, how they remain in our memory as they were "you didn't get old" one character says in a dream. As Uncle Sullivan recognizes that his life is coming to an end, he thinks of Teddy and his desire to become a priest and thinks " maybe that was the definition of life everlasting: the belief that the next generation would carry your work".
Late in the novel the younger Sullivan looks back over his life and thinks of the past twenty four hours and how it would have been told to him if he had not returned home in time to be part of it.
Bernard also thinks of the past and thinks what might have been "if time could be rolled back" and events that changed the past had never happened.
Back to before his wife died, and before the boys came into their family. How different all of their lives might have been.
This is a book that challenges us to think about the relationship between parent and child, relationships of blood or circumstance, the relationships between siblings. We question our assumptions about children "given up" by birth mothers and children who were "kept". If we do not know the truth about a relationship, what is real and what is not? What would we give up to have a loved one who has died returned to us - to regain what is lost?
These are the profound questions of human life, in a novel that begins and ends with Bernadette and family lineage, and the consequences of the events in our lives.