Run

By Ann Patchett. Published in 2007.

Ann Patchett has the remarkable ability to simultaneously ground her work in reality and spin it into fairy tale. Her novels are both of this world and otherworldly, rich in hard, telling detail that somehow transubstantiates into something magical and fragile.

That sense of grace grows in large part from her choice to tell her suspenseful stories without using villains. An idealist (though not a blind one), she chooses to see the good in all her characters, even, famously, a band of terrorists (“one man’s terrorist…” notwithstanding). It’s an incredible tightrope act, threatening to pitch into callow schmaltz at any second, but to my mind, at least, Patchett succeeds, persuasively conveying the humanity of all her characters. The worlds of The Magician’s Assistant and The Patron Saint of Liars and especially Bel Canto are, perhaps, more beautiful than our own, but under Patchett’s spell, those worlds don’t seem so very distant.

Patchett’s newest novel, Run, fits neatly within her oeuvre. It, too, is an almost fable-like tale of good people in intriguing, artfully drawn circumstances. It doesn’t have the gorgeously magical air of Bel Canto, but with its lyrical writing and gently humanistic perspective, it still has its enchanting moments.

Most of Run takes place over a twenty-four hour period in a wintry Boston. A mysterious woman named Tennessee Alice Moser saves Tip Doyle, the adopted college-age son of a disgraced politician, from being hit by a car and is herself grievously injured. Left alone by the departing ambulance, her preteen daughter, Kenya, falls under the wing of Tip, his brother Teddy, and their father. But Tennessee is not who she might seem to be, and her presence near Tip was not mere chance.

Patchett reveals her story’s secrets only gradually, but just as Bel Canto is not a thriller, despite the terrorists and hostages and coup attempts, neither is Run a gimmicky “surprise ending” tale. Patchett doesn’t make a fetish of her twists; instead, she approaches her material with the quietly discerning eye of an art restorer, carefully working her way down to the true work beneath the falsity of grime and yellowed varnish.

As delicate and simple as the basic plot is, the themes are admirably ambitious, though some are better executed that others. Patchett’s handling of race occasionally feels awkward, but her meditations on parenthood and family are lovely and deft. I particularly enjoy the way she writes about individual passions. In Bel Canto, she vividly describes the joy of music, something with which I directly and easily identify, but in Run she empathically describes the joys of ichthyology and running, delights with which I absolutely do not identify and yet, in the eloquence of her writing, manage to appreciate anyway.

I suppose I might admire that eloquence most of all. Patchett’s prose bewitches me; even when I believe, intellectually, that a conceit is weak or a character undefined, her gorgeous language pulls me along anyway, and I don’t fight it. Her books create such hope, such wonder, that I could never want to break to the spell.