Ann Patchett, 2007

Run is Ann Patchett’s fifth novel, published after the success of Bel Canto. It’s the story of several families linked in ways they don’t know, that come together one night in Boston after attending a talk by Jesse Jackson.

Tip and Teddy are brothers, born to Tennessee and adopted by Doyle and Bernadette. The boys are Black, and Doyle and Bernadette are well-off and white. At the start of the novel, we learn that Bernadette has died, so the boys grow up mostly in Doyle’s care. The action takes place basically over 24 hours, but of course in that time we unspool decades of conflict and turmoil in these lives, including the repercussions of Bernadette’s untimely death, Tennessee’s worry over her children, and Doyle’s apathy towards his one biological child, Sullivan.

Perhaps the star of the novel is Kenya, Tennessee’s daughter, who after years of watching Tip and Teddy and their family, gets to know them. She is an entirely lovable character — young, naive, full of promise and empathy for others. This is sharply contrasted with the adults who are jaded by life and becoming increasingly pessimistic.

“The boys hadn’t realized that she [Kenya] was crying for what her mother was enduring, or might have endured. They had thought that she was like any other child and so would be crying for herself. They had cried for themselves when their mother died. They were younger of course, they understood less, but they had never cried because their mother was suffering. They cried because they wanted her to take care of them the way she always had before. They cried for her reassurance.”

The novel is threaded with political and religious themes, and unpacks racial disparities. But of course, my interest is with the mothers in the novel. Bernadette is the first one we learn about, and although she is already dead she looms large in the consciousness of most of the characters. She adored her boys, and her death is a catastrophic marker in their lives. Next is Tennessee, who actually did not give up Tip until after Teddy was born. This decision is couched in some judgement, but Patchett deftly unravels this decision, sharing Tennessee’s angst and desperation to give her children the best lives possible. This is not a story about how adoption is easy. Tip and Teddy had doting parents and found success that they likely would have struggled more to achieve in different circumstances.

We get to know Tennessee mostly through Kenya, who adores her. It is evident that Tennessee is a doting mother who sets high standards and, although does not have much money, has given Kenya a loving home. It is late in the novel when we learn the details of Tennessee’s decisions, and a secret that makes everything make sense.

What I love about this novel is its dedication to showing all types of mothers, and the complicated nature of the relationship between mother and child. Bernadette did not need to give birth to Tip and Teddy for them to be her children, but at the same time, Patchett gives voice to the mother who gave them up. Four stars.

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