How do you write a great novel with all good guys and no bad guys? Ann Patchett has created for us a family of wonderful characters. The reader is pulling for every one of them. Where is the conflict? I’ll get to that question in a future post. First, the characters of Run.
- Bernard Doyle - Former mayor of Boston, widower, devoted and doting father with grand ambitions for his children.
- Bernadette Doyle – Bernard Doyle’s beautiful wife. She did not share her husband’s love of politics, but she lovingly supported him. Bernadette wanted a big family, many children, and especially a daughter. When she had only one son, she turned to adoption. Ann Patchett writes: “She did not ask for anything as ridiculous as a redhead or a girl, just a baby. Any baby would be fine.”
- Sullivan - Bernard and Bernadette’s first and only biological son. The bad boy of the family, with a weakness for alcohol and drugs, but he is the privileged son who cares most deeply about the underprivileged. He is the one who has the gift of connecting directly with people in pain.
- Tip and Teddy – The Doyles’ adopted sons. The Doyles are Irish-American. Tip and Teddy are African-American. Ann Patchett writes: “Tip was smarter and Teddy was sweeter.” They are young men now, college students, Tip gifted with a deep interest in the study of fish and evolutionary biology, Teddy possibly gifted with a vocation to the priesthood. Bernard Doyle still hopes to turn one or both of them toward a career in politics.
- Uncle Sullivan - A frail and elderly priest, Bernadette’s uncle and her children’s great-uncle. He has the gift of healing, perhaps. Teddy is devoted to Uncle Sullivan; the others ignore him.
- Tennessee Moser - Mother of Tip and Teddy, and Kenya. She was going to be a lawyer. She gave it up to be a mother. She was poor, she was wise. She loved her children. She is the heroine of this story.
- Kenya Moser - Daughter of Tennessee. Eleven years old, a Girl Scout, a gifted natural runner. Kenya is a bright and beautiful child, improbably wise and mature for her age.
The family is so compelling that you hardly notice the brief appearances of minor characters: Bernadette’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother, her two sisters, the driver of the SUV, the ambulance attendants and the police, a doctor or two, a nurse, two orderlies, the student gate-keeper at Harvard’s indoor track, a few runners on the track, and the convocation speaker at Johns Hopkins. Ann Patchett could not have told the story without them. Each of them has an important role, some key information or insight to contribute.
Of all the major characters, Bernard Doyle is the one I understand after one reading. (Full disclosure: You don’t find a leading man named Bernard every day. Bernard is my grandfather’s first name, and my father’s, and mine.) Ann Patchett’s Doyle is both father and mother, and a good politician as well. He does not dwell on what might have been, but dreams of what might yet be. More about Bernard Doyle after Christmas.
Meanwhile, I’m re-reading Bel Canto. After a break, I’ll take another look at Run. More on Ann Patchett’s two great novels after New Year’s. – Bernie Hayden