The Short Version: Bernard Doyle, former mayor of Boston, has the highest of hopes for his two adopted sons (Tip and Teddy) but neither of them seem to be interested in the political life he had planned for them. But a near-miss car accident pulls two strangers into their lives – strangers who might actually be closer to the boys than anyone could’ve known – and everything changes.
The Short Version: This did not feel like an Ann Patchett book. I don’t know if it was the compressed timeline (with the exception of the final chapter, the book takes place over roughly 24 hours) but it felt far too fast. I guess that makes sense, with a title like Run, but I don’t read Patchett’s work to feel speed – I read it for exactly the opposite, to feel a sense of relaxation and calmness. Her usual languid luxurious prose is almost non-existent and as a result you never really feel like you’re actually reading one of her books. This one is just trying too hard all around.
The plot is a little hackneyed right from the start. I lived in Boston for four years and while everyone makes light of it… race relations are still a huge problem there. It’s under the surface now but it was just as hard if not harder to integrate Boston than it was to integrate many Southern cities. To quote The Departed, “you’re a black guy in Boston – you don’t need any help from me to be completely fucked.” So the idea of an Irish Catholic mayor adopting two African American siblings requires a surprising amount of suspended disbelief. I’m not saying it couldn’t/wouldn’t happen – but it’s hard to see them fitting in as well as they do. That’s just the realities of the town, unfortunately.
Patchett does do a great job at nailing the specifics of Boston – hell, there’s even a B line to Boston College reference. There are a few little things (there haven’t been subway tokens in Boston since before I got there in 2006) but they’re forgivable in the interest of narrative and artistic license. But the whole thing seems so academic – it never gains the sense of reality that her other books so easily capture, even in the most extreme and unlikely settings (the Amazon rainforest, a South American mansion under siege, the flat expanses of Nebraska). It’s almost as though the city of my mind (London being the city of my heart and New York being the city of my existence, for those keeping track) grounded her too firmly in realities and so her prose was never able to take flight.
As a result, the whole book ends up feeling kind of stilted. You feel gypped at the end of it. It is so saccharine and cloying by the end that I almost felt like shouting “sell-out!” – because that’s kind of what it is. There’s a Goodreads review that blasts the book for copping to the Oprah’s Book Club audience and, in many ways, it does. To be clear, this is instead of writing a book for itself that is then embraced by such mainstream mostly-middle-aged-women book-club-esque groups. The rest of Patchett’s work (the other three that I’ve read, anyway) falls into this latter category but Run is the former.
There’s also a striking lack of clarity about the book. I again wonder if this has to do with the changed writing tone – but that’s not for me to answer. I had a hard time differentiating Tip and Teddy – yes, one was the ichthyologist and one was considering priesthood, but it was a struggle to remember who was older and I think that really this is because they were mostly interchangeable. They were not developed beyond the point of Capital-Letter delineation. No shading, no fleshing-out until about 3/4 of the way through the book and, even then, it’s Tip at the expense of Teddy instead of something mutual. Kenya, the young girl of the story, is perhaps the most fully-formed character but that’s because she gets the narrative task of being “the underprivileged child with a secret who is suddenly thrust into a world of means she’s only ever dreamed of.” It’s very Dickensian but executed by rote here. She’s the most developed character because the story demands that she be – not because she’s actually a developed character.
I think there’s a very strong story in here, albeit an odd one. It reminded me a little bit of Ian McEwan’s far-superior 24-hour-novel Saturday – but McEwan realized his constraints there and made sure to keep things lean and focussed. Here, we end up with strange and not-necessarily important subplots that don’t really go anywhere. SPOILERS COMING UP.
It turns out that Tennessee is not, in fact, Kenya’s mom – but she was in fact Tip & Teddy’s. She took Kenya under her wing after the real Tennessee, her best friend and Kenya’s mom, died. This is revealed in a dream sequence that recalls The Magician’s Assistant but ends up looking like a poor copy by comparison. We also find out that Sullivan, the older child of the Doyle clan, apparently killed his girlfriend in a drunk-driving accident and that Bernard and Sullivan decide that it was her driving the car since he can’t remember. If you’re thinking of Chappaquiddick, I’m sure that was the intent. Sullivan has been in Africa doing… something? Stealing anti-virals? It’s not really clear and Patchett seems to give up caring halfway through telling that particular story. His character is the most inconsistent: he’s painted as this unreliable failure but once he appears in the novel, he’s probably the most with-it of the whole group. No explanation is given, really.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I can’t find it in my heart to give this a 2 just because, well, I can’t. But it isn’t a very good novel. The plot is predictable and eye-rolling at best, the characters are all surprisingly flat, and Patchett’s “sitting by a stream in a forest” prose is nowhere to be found. The book felt generic and while it was moderately engaging, I think that was really only because I was trying to ‘run’ to the end of the book. There were elements of something quite good here – sparks of character, flashes of plot – but they feel like they were all cobbled together in a big mush because the author didn’t have the interest in exploring any one of them individually. It’s with a heavy heart that I say I’m disappointed by one of my favorite author’s works with this book.