by Ann Patchett
Published by HarperCollins
295 pages, 2007
A Card Unturned
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Ann Patchett’s latest novel opens with a statue of the Virgin Mary, an exquisite rendering held in the Sullivan family for decades, inherited in turn by each generation’s eldest daughter. But now the younger Sullivan sisters are knocking on Bernard Doyle’s door, looking to reclaim the family Mary after the early death of their sister, and Doyle’s wife, Bernadette. Doyle protests: his adopted children, Tip and Teddy, are certain the statue represents their mother. They pray to her nightly. Angered, the aunts seek their Uncle Sullivan’s intervention. Sullivan, a priest with a special affection for the boys, indignantly sides with his brother-in-law.
Time passes; the boys grow up. Bernard Doyle, former mayor of Boston, wants his sons follow him into Boston politics. To this end, he demands Tip and Teddy accompany him to all manner of political events. Tip would rather spend his days immersed in ichthyology; Teddy, friendly and disinterested in study, lives at his Uncle Sullivan’s bedside in the Regina Cleri nursing home, where the now-aged man lies dying of heart disease. Father Sullivan has earned an unwanted reputation as a healer. To this end, people line the halls of the nursing home, hoping for the dying man’s touch. Teddy, equally hungry for his uncle’s companionship, has appointed himself guardian, gently shooing away the sick.
Neither boy can bring himself to call off Doyle’s misplaced ambitions. That they are black and their adoptive family white plays some role; Doyle longs for one of his sons to become the first black president. As for Sullivan, the priest’s namesake, Doyle’s sole biological child with Bernadette, the less said, the better. Prodigal Sullivan is off in Africa, performing amorphous work, his distance a relief to all parties.
Events rapidly turn for the worse when the boys attend a Jesse Jackson lecture with their father. Both have come grudgingly: Tip from his lab full of fishy wonders, Teddy from Regina Cleri. Both hoped a predicted snowstorm would trap them in their favorite spots. Alas, the snow holds off, leaving the young men squirming through the lecture. They emerge into a freezing, swirling mass of white: the snowstorm has belatedly arrived. Out in the weather, Tip and Doyle fall to arguing about their next destination, a cocktail party Doyle wants them to attend. Tip, refusing, backs away from his father, off the obscured sidewalk into the street, where he is struck by a car. A woman rushes forward and pushes him out of the way, taking the brunt of the hit.
Tennessee Alice Moser has also attended the Jesse Jackson lecture. Like Bernard Doyle, she has dragged her unwilling offspring, eleven-year-old Kenya, along.
For a child who has just seen her mother getting hit by an SUV, Kenya is remarkably composed. She carefully scans the area for her mother’s purse, her mittens, one boot, the green hat bought on sale at Filene’s. When the ambulance rushes her mother away, Kenya enters the Doyles’ lives. But this young stranger knows far too much about the Doyles: their names, ages, and hobbies, their absent elder brother, their address.
Kenya is a smart child, a good student, a musical girl with amazing athletic ability. Kenya Moser can run very, very fast. Tip and Teddy were runners, too, before giving in to their respective interests. Despite her attempts to obey her unconscious mother, Kenya is soon forced to let her secret slip: Tennessee Alice Moser is Tip and Teddy’s mother. She has shadowed the boys she could not afford to raise for years, often with Kenya in tow.
As the gravely injured Tennessee lies awaiting surgery, the Doyles take Kenya home with them. There is nowhere else for her to go. Sullivan appears, unexpected, mostly unwanted. His activities in Africa -- he sold retroviral medications, which he watered down -- have gotten him into trouble, and he’s fled for the relative safety of his father’s home.
Patchett’s fiction specializes in these sorts of disparate characters. In The Patron Saint of Liars, a girl seeking refuge at a home for unwed mothers marries the handyman without ever breathing a word of her past. Sabine, of The Magician’s Assistant, falls in love with Parsifal, a homosexual carpet merchant who sidelines in magic. Sabine spends 20 years with Parsifal, staying to nurse him and his Vietnamese lover, Phan, as both fall ill and die from AIDS. Later she cultivates an intense relationship with Parsifal’s estranged family. Bel Canto focuses on a group of hostages held in a South American ambassador’s home and their relationships with their captors. Several unusual romantic liaisons transpire and a few hold, even after the deadly climax. Perhaps closest to Run is Taft, Patchett’s least successful novel, about a black bartender and his relationship with a white waitress and her troubled brother.
It is testimony to her talent that Patchett can take what often feels like an unwieldy or unworkable plot and render it seamless. Both Magician and Bel Canto wind lovely, aching stories about the possibilities of love and its ability to transcend conventional boundaries. Taft is weaker, but never for a moment does protagonist John Nickel forget the limitations imposed by race. Run skims over these moments. Tip and Teddy are almost pathologically well-behaved boys whose worst rebellions relate to career choices. Neither, it seems, have any trouble with their roles in society. And though we are told both boys are handsome charmers who easily attract women, we don’t know whether those women are black, white, or both. Their interracial life is brought up only once, as Tip and Teddy enter the teeming lobby to attend the Jackson lecture:
But Patchett doesn’t shy away from describing the poverty running along racial lines. As Tip’s sprained ankle is tended in the emergency room, Doyle rummages through Tennessee Moser’s wallet, searching for insurance cards, finding only seven dollars. Kenya, waking the next morning in the Doyle manse, marvels at the light, the comparative warmth of the bedroom, but mostly:
Yet Tennessee Moser’s appearance lacks impact. The Doyle family is disturbed by her years of spying, but are not especially alarmed. Tip, who lived with his biological mother for 14 months before being adopted by the Doyles, professes no interest in the woman who saved his life. Teddy is anxious, but can only focus on getting his frail Uncle Sullivan from his nursing home to the hospital: he wants the priest in the same room as Tennessee.
Sullivan Doyle is Run’s most compelling character. A smooth talker, Sullivan is something of a hustler. The morning after the accident, he manages to cadge a Percoset off the injured Tip before walking to the hospital with Teddy. There he finds himself alone with the barely conscious Tennessee. The two engage in a brutally honest conversation, the sort carried out only by those who have had recent near-death experiences. Yet even as Sullivan discloses a series of selfish decisions with irrevocable consequences, he flirts with the nurses, cadges ice for Tennessee, coffee and a doughnut for himself. And though Tennessee grills him mercilessly, he does his best to soothe her. Of all the Doyles, he is the one who best relates to Kenya.
I can’t help but wonder if Sullivan Doyle could have existed without Patchett’s friendship with Lucy Grealy. The way he is simultaneously annoying and compassionate, immoral with his brothers while genuinely solicitous of Kenya, reminded me intensely of the charming, maddening woman described in Truth and Beauty.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is anything but fine. Emerging from anesthesia, she “wakens” to find herself in a hospital room with “her beloved, dearest, and best,” her closest friend, who died of urosepsis at age 25. The ensuing interlude, hovering between life and death, the world of the living and the much-mourned dead, is an awful throwback to Patchett’s painful memoir of her friendship with Grealy, who died of a drug overdose in 2002.
Tennessee is unsure whether she is dreaming or dead.
When her friend joins her in the hospital bed, Tennessee remembers that she:
Here is Patchett on Grealy, in Truth and Beauty:
After Grealy’s death, Patchett writes:
During Tennessee’s interlude with her deceased friend, a similar conversation ensues:
It isn’t really, and without spoiling the ending, I will say the book comes together all too neatly; Kenya, liker her brothers, proves remarkably resilient. Too resilient. The race card, such a risky one to play in a novel, lies unturned.
If Run is not one of Patchett’s best works, it must be said she is following a tough act -- herself. Though the book lacks the depth and detail of Magician or Bel Canto, it has all the smooth sentences and singing narrative skill that made Patchett’s earlier works so enjoyable. As for the Mary statue, it does end up with a Sullivan daughter, albeit an unexpected one. | September 2007