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Ann Patchett's inventive twist on the family drama
At first blush it is a surprise to hear Ann Patchett say, "I do think of myself as a social and political novelist." Her previous novel, Bel Canto, which won her the Orange Prize and became an enduring favorite of book groups, is widely regarded as one of the best love stories of recent decades. And her scintillating new novel, Run, will surely be considered by many of its most avid readers the very thing she seems to fear most: "a heartwarming family drama."
But to Patchett's point, the romance in Bel Canto blooms amid the political and emotional turmoil of a terrorist takeover at a tony international gathering in South America. And Run, which concerns the family of a former Boston mayor, often rings with the hopeful political oratory of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, while raising large questions about our responsibilities for people beyond our immediate bloodlines.
"I come from a very complicated family, with tons of stepbrothers and stepsisters," Patchett says, with a characteristic mix of good humor and passion. "That is so much at the core of my imagination. You know? Who is your family? Who do you love? Who do you have responsibility to? My mother was married to my stepfather from the time I was five until I was 25. He had four children. My mother is married to someone else now who I love very much, and he has three children. Where are my levels of love and responsibility to all these people? I come from the school that if you spend a night in my house, you're my family. And you're my family forever."
The family in the novel Run is less extended but no less complicated than Patchett's own. As the book opens, Bernard Doyle, a widower and former mayor of Boston, is alienated from his oldest son Sullivan and now hopes to see his own thwarted political ambitions realized through his adopted African-American sons Tip and Teddy. Neither of these boys is particularly interested in a political life. Tip, the more brilliant of the two, studies ichthyology at Harvard; Teddy considers becoming a Catholic priest, like the elderly uncle he is devoted to. The story begins with Bernard dragging the two boys to a speech by Jesse Jackson as a blizzard descends upon Boston.
Patchett says her characters developed as she imagined a father who wants to raise one of his children to save the world. "When I first started the book I thought if you were really going to save the world in this present day, really help people, you would do it through science. Then I thought about religion. Then ultimately, over a period of a very long time, I came to politics. I decided you have the best chance of effecting real change through politics. So I thought a lot about Joe Kennedy and a lot about the three brothers in The Brothers Karamazov. So for me the book comes from trying to think deeply about the world, from a place of intellect and problem-solving."
According to Patchett, problem-solving and intellect also characterize her usual approach to writing fiction. During a call to her home in Nashville, where she has lived much of her life and where two-and-a-half years ago she married a local doctor after an 11-year courtship, Patchett says, "My standard line is that writing is like taking a car trip. If I don't know where I'm going and I don't have a map, I don't get there. I understand a lot of writers say if they knew where they were going, there would be no point in writing, that a book is the process of figuring out where it is going. But I need to know how it's going to end before I start."
Still, the composition of Run presented Patchett with a number of surprises. "I imagined the story would take place over about four months . . . and then I realized I was on page 140 and I was only two or three hours into the story. The level of intensity in which everything is called into question is so enormous that none of the characters can turn away from the action, so I had to stay with them and write a book that takes place over the course of 24 hours."
Nor did Patchett's original road map include the marvelous Kenya, a talented 11-year-old girl whose mother is seriously injured when she saves Tip from an oncoming car and whose quiet assertion that she is the adopted brothers' sister sets off the intense moral and emotional quest of the novel. "I hadn't planned for that," Patchett says, "but then Kenya moved forward and I thought, well, I'm going to let her rise into that role."
Patchett, who spent 12 years in Catholic school (and jokes that as a result when her writing is stuck she "runs the vacuum, or dusts, or cooks, or I iron my husband's handkerchiefs. I'm a great wife. And I enjoy it!") adds: "In the same way that I like writing a book that has religion in it but is in no way about religion, I like a book that has people of different races in it without it being about race. Somehow, whenever I see a book that has white people and black people in it, it's a book about race, and that seems wrongheaded and untrue to the experience of life. The stakes are higher when you imagine people farther from your own experience, but the farther your characters are from your experience, the more likely you are to work to make sure they are fully realized characters."
"The value of literary fiction," Patchett says near the end of our conversation, "is that the writer brings half and the reader brings half. You have to leave enough space to let the book become something different with each reading. To me Run is about social responsibility. But I don't want it to be a polemic. I can't devalue what it becomes in anyone else's hands. I have left it open for readers to make it their own book. And if they make it into a heartwarming family drama, and that works for them and it teaches them something, then the book is a success."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.