Family life through a magical lens

Review Novel

October 07, 2007|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,[Special to The Sun]


By Ann Patchett

HarperCollins / 304 pages/ $25.95

In Run, Ann Patchett's, fanciful new novel, one, maybe two, of the characters is a ghost. Another is a priest with possible healing powers. A third is a mother whose devotion knows no bounds. Then there is a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that seems to merge "two women, one an Irish teenager and the other the Mother of God."

Bernadette Doyle's great-grandfather was drawn to the statue because it resembled the Irish lass he loved but who spurned his affection. So he stole it - from a church - and used it to lure her into matrimony. Several generations later, the statue has traveled from Ireland to Boston where it belongs to Bernard Doyle, who must decide whether to give it to his nieces or to keep it for his three sons since his wife, Bernadette, has died from facial cancer. Problem is they have no daughters, and the statue has always passed down from mother to daughter - not just to any daughter but to the one resembling the statue.

Giving it to a boy is heretical - especially since two of Doyle's sons are adopted. Their African-American features in no way resemble the statue which has iron-rust red hair, dark blue eyes, a long narrow nose, and looks just like the former Bernadette Doyle.

Writing in a wry tone, reminiscent of work by Anne Tyler and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Patchett looks at contemporary family life through the lens of magical realism. At its heart, this is a mystery story with a message about the power of maternal love. So engaging is Patchett's style that whatever else you believe about this story, you will never doubt that power - even though one of the mothers at the tale's epicenter is in intensive care with a poor prognosis, and the other is dead.

Bernadette's death so depressed her 10-year-old son, Sullivan, that he later sought relief in drugs, a habit that led to a car accident and the death of his fiancee. The circumstances of the accident sent Sullivan off to Africa. It also destroyed Bernard Doyle's political career. The younger boys, Tip and Teddy, two brothers - only three and four when their mother passed on - thought the statue was a replica of Bernadette and prayed to it every night.

Twenty and 21 when the action starts, the two still feel her loss so keenly that neither has even considered looking for his birth mother. Tip, a conscientious Harvard senior, studies exotic fish, so he can isolate himself in the lab. Although Tip, like Doyle and Sullivan, is no longer religious, Teddy plans to become a priest and comfort, perhaps heal, the sick, as does Father Sullivan, his uncle and mentor.

But little does Teddy know that Fr. Sullivan is in the throes of a crisis of faith so profound that he doubts the existence of God and is sure that he has no propensity for healing - this despite the spontaneous recovery of two women over whom he has prayed.

The question soon becomes: Will Fr. Sullivan be able to heal the black woman who appears seemingly out of nowhere and saves Tip from an oncoming car? Mortally injured, she is sent to the emergency room as Tip winds up with a fractured fibula and with the woman's daughter, 11-year-old, Kenya.

Patchett meanwhile shifts the spotlight onto the injured stranger who (in an anaesthetic haze) either has a dream, or talks to the ghost of her deceased best friend or has a near-death experience - maybe all three. The ambiguous situation reveals the secret behind Tip and Teddy's adoption, Kenya's parentage, and the woman's identity.

The rest of the story focuses on the relationship that develops between Kenya and the Doyles. Bright, talented, and ambitious, she is the daughter and sister they always wanted, which somewhat predictably has ramifications vis-?-vis the family tradition of passing down the statue of Mary. Perhaps, the statue actually has a miraculous nature. Perhaps, Bernadette has been interceding from the other side.

Replete with flashbacks and flash-forwards, most of this compressed, relatively short novel occurs in twenty-four hours. Nevertheless, this is a big sweeping narrative, which spans numerous locales from Boston's Harvard Square to Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and The Brass Elephant restaurant. It incorporates several generations while taking depth-soundings into the minds of its five protagonists, as well as bringing them gracefully alive through evocative descriptions. Most importantly, Patchett's subtle humor generally tones down what threatens to be a too-sweet family reunion and extreme religious fervor.

Doyle, for example, does not have the kind of Catholic faith that considers a religious statue suitable for his living room. Besides, he doesn't want to appear too overtly Catholic. But when he discussed his reservations with his bride years earlier, she insisted the statue remain in its place on the mantel.

"`It's art,'" she said. "`It's me. Pretend that she's naked.'"

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