Saturday, November 17, 2012

On track

Though I love reading Ann Patchett, after reading Run I've realized a trend in my reactions to her books: I get very engrossed in the characters and scenarios from page one, and then feel like the ending is always too neatly and swiftly wrapped up, and feel a little cheated of important character developments.

Run was no different. Though I liked the first 95% of the book, the last chapter glosses over the lives of the characters after a tragedy that necessarily changes them. Then the epilogue picks up years later, with the same characters in very different lives.  (The endings to Bel Canto and Patron Saint of Liars were similarly disjointed and disorienting, after the beautifully crafted, compelling character maps of the rest of the books.)

Run takes place in Boston, over a period of 24 hours after a car accident. The characters are neighbors in that way that worlds collide on every other street in Boston: rich and poor, black and white, Catholic and irreligious, academic and skilled worker. The story itself is cute, though improbable: the privileged former mayor takes care of the young girl whose mother has been injured. His two adopted sons are forced to think about the mother who gave them up for adoption, and his biological son contemplates a car accident years before that altered his relationship with his father.

What left me unsatisfied, however, was the lack of character depth for the girl's mother: though her actions explain a lot of the book, the reader never quite gets into her head. Then there's the reality of Boston, a city (like many old cities with centuries of privilege and inequality) where identity and opportunity are often synonymous. Half the time while reading, I kept thinking "This could never happen in Boston." And yet there's a grain of believability because it couldn't happen anywhere else. (But maybe the part that's believable is really just the buried hope that one day, America can give children of every race and class a good education and an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams.)

The absence of overt racism also added to the book's unbelievability.* I think Patchett did a wonderful job of highlighting the gulf between the clueless (but highly educated) privileged echelons and the working class families struggling to stay out of poverty. She also showed how class and race can be intertwined in a city with very real historical and enduring segregation. However, for a story about worlds colliding (and one in which half the main characters are black), there were remarkably few instances involving racism.

In short, the book is a very different take on that "great" old American favorite, the rags-to-riches tale. It's really cute and magical if we suspend belief and social realities. We want it to be possible  because it ignores the injustices we've created and can't solve.

* Yes, I'm still jealous that a ton of my friends got to go this year's Facing Race conference, where Junot Diaz gave an amazing keynote speech (or so I could infer from the Twitter hashtag stream I was following from home on a Friday night).

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