'Run' begins with an unexpected reunion

In her latest novel, Ann Patchett examines the nonbiological ties that shape a family.

As fun evenings go, Tip Doyle probably would rank attending a political speech just above cleaning grout in a MBTA-station bathroom.

But his dad, the Irish-American onetime mayor of Boston, is determined to instill a love of politics in his adopted boys. While Bertram Doyle's success on that front has been dubious, he certainly has succeeded in instilling a love for him. So, despite finals and a winter-storm warning, the Harvard senior and his easygoing brother Teddy dutifully head over to the Kennedy Center (late) to listen to Jesse Jackson.

In the face of such filial devotion, it seems a little unfair that Tip gets run over by an SUV on his way out of the lecture. He might have been killed, but a woman shoves him out of the way, getting seriously injured herself in the process. At the hospital, the Doyles are confounded both by the woman's selflessness and also what to do about her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, who says she has no other family and no friends with whom she can stay. The temporary solution is to take her home. At first, Bertram resists, pointing out that you can't just walk off with a child. "Not a random little white girl," Tip points out. He and Teddy are African-American and used to navigating racial expectations. "But a random little black girl? I don't think anyone's going to stop us." Tip didn't get into Harvard for nothing, and they are in fact able to sashay out the door with an 11-year-old girl with her own reasons for wanting to stay with the Doyles.

The set-up for Run, Ann Patchett's fifth novel, is ripe for melodrama. But Patchett ("Bel Canto"), an accomplished, emotionally rich writer, isn't interested in histrionics. She brushes right by obvious opportunities for scenery-chewing in favor of quiet reflection and deep character study. Politics, religion, interracial adoption, family, and absent mothers are a few of the topics on the agenda.

The Doyle men, as Patchett details in her opening chapter, are united by loss: Four years after Tip and Teddy were adopted, their mom, Bernadette, died. She left behind one husband, three sons, and a statue that looked just like her.

"It was a very pretty statue as those things go, maybe a foot and a half high, carved from rosewood and painted with such a delicate hand that many generations later her cheek still bore the high translucent flush of a girl startled by a compliment."

The statue of Mary was acquired by an ancestor in Ireland and was traditionally passed down to the daughter who most resembled it. Only Bernadette didn't have a daughter. Her oldest boy, Sullivan, is the only one who has her red hair and blue eyes, but he's been estranged from his dad for more than a decade.

Since her death, Bertram has devoted himself to his two youngest boys, and they share a closeness unimaginable to most parents of college students – "the closeness that was born out of their own bad luck. Both of the boys allowed themselves to be pulled around by Bertram now only because they had clung to him for so long. Their loyalty had become their habit. As children they had been so eager to please him that they had spoiled him into thinking that they would grow up to be exactly the men he wanted them to be."

Tip and Teddy were named after Massachusetts royalty, but neither cares to follow their father into politics, despite his well-meaning machinations. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist, while Teddy gravitates toward the priesthood.

"Tip was smarter and Teddy was sweeter. They had heard it since a time before memory."

As for Sullivan, his political contribution was to provide his dad with the Kennedy-style scandal that ended Bertram's career. Now back after years in Africa working at an AIDS clinic, the prodigal son returns just in time to help his family.

Patchett does a beautiful job drawing all the Doyle sons – sweet, congenial Teddy; introspective, focused Tip; and charming, exasperating Sullivan. Most of the book takes place over the course of one weekend, with a coda at the end, as the Doyles redefine their family. Patchett cheats a little, relying on a supernatural conversation to fill in some blanks in the plot, and some readers might expect more detail about what it's like for young black men to be raised by an older white one.

But, while not as stunning as "Bel Canto," "Run" is still a moving, surely written work about what it means to truly love a child.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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