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A Slow Run
Reviewed in the United States on December 12, 2007
As a writer I understand that having a major publication event in your life is only a set-up for high expectations and--in the eyes of readers--subsequent failure if those expectations aren't met. In this review, I'll try to see writing and publishing through the eyes of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and England's Orange Prize, among others. With that sort of street cred, you can sleep well at night, right? I doubt it, in Patchett's case, after reading her latest, Run.
I had read Bel Canto, and enjoyed it immensely--a deceptively easy read considering its implications--and, having read a pan of Run in NEWSWEEK, I decided to pass. Then I reconsidered. It was a one-day novel, something every aspiring writer seems compelled to write these days. The NEWSWEEK review turned snide toward the end, snarking that one-day novels were best left to the likes of Ian McEwan. What had Patchett done to deserve such a caustic remark?
In the end, and to put it simply, Patchett did know the ins and outs of the one-day form. She established her conflict quickly, leading seamlessly into her characters' pasts through inventive technique as she nudged the plot forward ever so slowly. What dismayed me wasn't this sort of agile strategizing. Instead, she failed Creative Writing 101. Her sentence structures are clunky, her dialogue trite, even abysmally so, as lightweight as listening to someone else's cell phone conversation on the bus home from work. Her character portrayals were inconsistent, empty, unreal, and she jumped from one character's point of view to another with vertiginous speed. All this leaving the story and characters sketchy and malformed, despite a plot that should've worked.
Okay, a bit about the plot. WASPish former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle, has adopted two black boys, and raised them successfully. One, Tip, is an ichthyologist (see what I mean about stretching the bounds of credibility? Who wants to study fish, anyway? And who cares? Only Philip Roth could make that an interesting character turn.) And Dad is now trying to hustle the other son, Teddy, into politics. Tip is nearly run down and might have died, had not a middle-aged black woman (who, as it turns out, is his biological mother) pushed him to safety, at great peril to her own life. But the plot is quickly thickened (or so I hoped) by the presence of these two young men's biological sister, Kenya, who was with the mother and tries to tend to her after being injured. These family ties bared, Tip and Teddy try to figure out what to make of these newfound relationships.
Unfortunately, the two brothers don't succeed, largely because Patchett doesn't seem to know what to make of the new relationship herself. The brother-sister meet-up is meant to portray glaring disparities between Boston's elite and its underclass, something Nick Flynn has done admirably, but it's clear that Patchett has no grip on either class.
Which leaves me to wonder what happened to Patchett?. Was this a manuscript written early in her apprenticeship, before Bel Canto? Did she have editorial help with Bel Canto, help sorely missing here? Did she simply slap something together for Run, thinking she could coast on her reputation? Only she knows, I'm afraid.
I wanted to like Run, and tried desperately to do so. And in the last fifty pages, the talent she displayed in Bel Canto began to surface, leaving hope that Patchett isn't a one-hit wonder.
So Ann, if you're listening, I can only say I'm disappointed. I hope the pan reviews for Run serve as a trip to the woodshed, that you'll go back to your computer sufficiently chastened, determined to pound out another piece with the talent of Bel Canto.
Posted by bobmust at 7:53 AM 0 comments