Patchett’s Boston beautiful but wrong

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • October 26, 2007
{mosimage}Run by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins, 295 pages, $32.95).

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Run, will fly out of bookstores. And well it should, for it is a beautiful book. It is a non-Catholic novel about semi-pagan Catholics, but both the plot and the characters are engaging. The tone is as gentle and musical as the soundtrack on its promotional DVD. If you have a soft heart and an ear for good writing, you will be entranced and moved by Run.

I, however, am ready to nitpick.

Run is set in Boston and, faith and begorrah, Patchett’s Boston is an Irish place to be sure. It is neatly divided between good-hearted, well-to-do Irish Americans and great-hearted, poor African Americans — although here and there a Jamaican taxi driver and a hoop-earringed Hispanic siren jazz things up. Patchett’s Boston is tourist Boston. She gets Cambridge right, but her Boston is wrong.
Boston is a hot-tempered, impatient city — frayed, loudmouthed and abrupt. That’s what happens when you take thousands of self-pitying Irish, shove them into a small space with freed black slaves, leave them there for seven generations, then add a few thousand student squatters every year.

Patchett’s Boston is genteel and a tad melancholy. And as any of the white working-class majority of the city would say to her, “Lady, that’s retahted.”

{sa 0061340634}The story begins with the death of a young mother, Bernadette Doyle, and the attempt of her sisters to pry a family heirloom, passed always from mother to daughter, from her bereft men folk. Bernadette had been a woman surrounded by adoring men — her husband Bernard, her son Sullivan, and her adopted boys Tip and Teddy. Tip and Teddy aren’t exactly Irish, as they are black, and the aunts believe the statue of the Blessed Mother should at least remain with the Irish, if not in the matrilineal line. Bernard demurs for the statue is the spitting image of Bernadette herself, and the boys pray to it. Indeed, Bernadette prayed to it herself as a child, entranced by its resemblance to her beautiful self. The sisters subside and never appear in the story again.

The story, at heart, is about the Bona Dea, Divine Motherhood, and women who don’t fit into the goddess mould are only in the way.

The central event of the plot is an accident outside a lecture at Harvard during a blizzard. The grown Tip is shoved from the path of a speeding SUV by a mysterious, impoverished black woman. She is badly hurt, and her daughter is left behind with the Doyle family. The emergency crew, white and black, assumes that the black girl belongs to the black brothers. This is typical, but not so typical is that the bright little girl knows all about the Doyles.

The story is a fairy tale for Democrats. Bernard, who became mayor of Boston after Bernadette’s death, is the nicest well-to-do Bostonian you could ever meet. Disappointed in his rebellious older son, he pours his affection and ambition upon his younger black sons. He wants them to follow him into politics. He tells them that they can be president one day; he works hard to make this so.

Their childhood is a happy if exhausting one. Sent to the best school around, they are taken on trips to Walden Pond and other natural and cultural treasures of Massachusetts. They are trained to serve the public and are dragged to lecture after lecture, speech after speech by progressive politicians. By the time they are in college, though, they are sick of this. Tip (named for Boston politico Tip O’Neill) wants an academic career studying fishes. Teddy (named for Ted Kennedy?) is devoted to his elderly priest-uncle Sullivan and contemplates the priesthood, a path that would not be popular with his family. Bernard is (of course) ethnically Catholic, but not in a way that might embarrass. He objected to keeping the statue of the Blessed Mother in the parlour, and he thinks of believing Catholics as “the Catholics.”

This does not ring true. Patchett plays a lovely tune, but she hits some wrong notes. Catholicism is what she gets wrong most often. I can forgive her for writing that the cold wind blew down from Toronto (Toronto is almost due West of Boston), but I can’t forgive her the nun who allows a stream of strangers to see a dying priest and the priest who becomes a pagan. I don’t believe either.

To Patchett, Catholicism is only important insofar as its tribalism gets Democrats elected and it grounds its more enlightened members in social justice. Tip resents even this watered-down Catholicism, though, thinking that his father had “made them:high strung little do-gooders who had to live every moment of their lives as an enactment of the Nicene Creed.”

Ah, if only.

Patchett means Matthew 25, not the Nicene Creed, which she (perhaps unknowingly) makes Fr. Sullivan reject. It seems odd to me that an 88-year-old priest would have no relationship whatsoever with Jesus Christ and, indeed, come to the conclusion that life itself is God, and it’s all we got. Catholicism is reduced to mother worship, ethics and an entrée into a flourishing career with the Democratic Party.

But Catholic quibbles aside, Run is beautifully written. Patchett is a true wordsmith. Although she does not quite “get” either Boston or Catholicism, she certainly gets the relationships of her characters and the beauty of the English language. Those who enjoy good writing about heroic people struggling to express themselves to those they love will certainly enjoy Run.

(Freelance writer Cummings lived in Boston for two years.)

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