On a snowy day in Boston, a car accident sets in motion a chain of events that forces an already complicated family to redefine itself.
Even before their story opens, the Doyles, the unlikely family whose fortunes and misfortunes unfold over one long snowy night and day in Ann Patchett's "Run," have already had their share of surprises and sorrow.
Years back, Bernard Doyle, the father, was brought down as Boston's mayor after he lied about who was driving in a fatal car crash involving his oldest son, Sullivan. Doyle's wife, Bernadette, died young of cancer, leaving him with Sullivan, who has a weakness for controlled substances, and two adopted black sons, who are no trouble at all but who haven't turned out the way Doyle had hoped.
The names of the younger sons, Tip and Teddy, reflect their liberal Irish-American father's political aspirations for them. But college-age Tip and Teddy have dreams of their own. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist, and Teddy is leaning toward the Roman Catholic priesthood, vocations that leave their father alternately incredulous and dismissive.
One snowy night, Doyle drags the two to a Jesse Jackson speech. Afterward, on the street outside, Tip tells his father that he's done going to such events. In his anger and frustration, Tip fails to see an SUV barreling toward him. A middle-aged black woman leaps forward and pushes him out of the vehicle's path. His leg is broken; she suffers serious internal injuries.
In that instant, the Doyles' lives, and their assumptions about themselves as individuals and as a family, change forever.
Tip's savior is accompanied by her sweet-tempered 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, who looks a lot like Tip and Teddy and who, when they take her to the hospital to see her mother, chatters away about the many other times she and her mother have watched them go about their daily lives.
Can it be that the injured woman is their biological mother? If she's their mother, why did she give them up, and why didn't she give Kenya up? Is she really who she claims to be? And how, with these new people in their lives, will they proceed?
The story's most vivid characters are Kenya, who runs like the Olympian we gather she will someday be, and Father Sullivan, Doyle's dying, ancient uncle, who when he's not gasping out of cigarette-ruined lungs dispenses bits of common sense and good cheer.
In her other novels, including the immensely popular "Bel Canto," Patchett has artfully explored what connects strangers and what constitutes family. "Run" does that more explicitly, and a tad less artfully. The Doyles start out as four men -- the aging ex-mayor, the damaged older son and the two idealistic younger ones. Suddenly, all are faced with caring for Kenya and doing the right thing by her mother. At least two female ghosts, including that of Bernadette, also count as characters.
"Run" is about a lot of things. Most broadly, it is about race and class in America, where people living mere blocks apart cannot fathom the others' lives. More narrowly, it is about family -- what makes a family? Clearly it's not always genetics, so what is it? Circumstance? Duty? Habit? Loyalty? Love? It's also about absent mothers, be they AWOL or dead; about the things people believe in, and about the things they run to (and from).
Such weightiness is both the novel's strength and its weakness. "Run" is a compelling and suspenseful read. But Patchett is trying to do too much, too fast, with too many characters, and at times the plot twists, shifts of perspective and deep good-heartedness of all of the characters, even the dissolute Sullivan, strain credulity. And the plot tie-ups, which it would be unfair to reveal here, are a little too clean.
This reviewer, who is white, also wondered if the almost breezy treatment of race relations would ring true to black reviewers and readers. It is not a question that can be answered here.
Still, "Run" is vivid and gracefully written, a uniquely American novel that is hopeful to the core. Readers will finish it with an enriched sense of what family means, and perhaps ponder their own kin with greater wisdom and understanding. That, in the end, is what the best stories do -- give us pleasure first, and perspective second.
Pamela Miller is a night local-news editor at the Star Tribune.