Monday 2 November 2009

In which I become increasingly more nervous that Bel Canto was just a beautiful accident

A few months ago, I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and was just blown away by the writing, the story, the gentleness with which the author treated her doomed and fragile characters. I enjoyed Bel Canto so much that it made me both extremely interested in and tensely wary of reading any of Patchett's other novels; I have this fear that books as good as Bel Canto can't be matched by their authors because they're too good, and that everything else must surely disappoint. But I took the plunge, friends, in spite of my fears and read Run. So, it's really too bad that it confirmed my fears.

Plot spoilers!
Run tells the story of the Doyles and the Mosers, two families who on the surface of things have nothing much in common, but who turn out to be intimately connected in profoundly unexpected ways. Tip and Teddy Doyle are young African American men in their twenties, adopted into an affluent white family as babies and who enjoy the educational and social benefits thereof. Their adoptive father, as former mayor of Boston, has high political aspirations for his sons, sons whom he deeply loves but whose real desires (Tip loves nothing but fishes and wants to do a PhD in ichthyology, while Teddy feels called to become a Catholic priest) he tends to dismiss in favour of constantly pushing them both to become politicians.

The Moser family comprises a single mother, Tennessee, and her 11 year old daughter Kenya; they live in a housing project, and Tennessee barely makes ends meet in her job as an elder care worker.

The two families meet in a snowstorm when, coming out of a lecture by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Tip almost gets hit by a car but is saved by Tennessee, who takes the hit and is severely injured. At the hospital (Tip ends up with a fractured ankle and so must go too) it becomes clear that these two families coming together this way may not be accidental because Kenya reveals amidst a great deal of shock and awe that she is Tip and Teddy's sister!! and that Tennessee is their birth mother!!!

How does Kenya know this? Because Tennessee has been watching them for years now, to make sure they're alright. If being stalked by their birth mother isn't enough, it's revealed that the Mosers also live literally a 5-minute walk away - yes, the beautiful part of Boston is apparently literally on the other side of the tracks from Cathedral, a rather rough part of town. Not so surprisingly, I guess; Toronto's just like that in points as well. But in Run, it does make the stalking seem a little less benign.

It is benign, however, as the Doyles come to see as Kenya stays with them (there's nowhere else for her to go, for secret reasons I won't reveal here) while her mother undergoes multiple surgeries in hospital.

Now, Run gestures towards all kinds of huge and important things like class, and parents' expectations of their children, and race, and how genetics affect family dynamics and the identities of individuals within families and the larger social pool. But in the end, these gestures felt rather half-hearted and the issues weren't explored in the depth they could - and, I think, should - have been. So, there was a lot of story and not a lot of substance here, just shadows of substance not fully materialized.

In which I really spoil the plot
Also, the way the book wrapped up was really too pat; it's so glib and easy that it almost makes me angry. Kenya is a smart kid at a shitty, ghetto school; she's got natural talent for the piano but no money for lessons and no instrument to practice on; she's a startlingly gifted runner but isn't getting to as many meets as she should be because of the whole shitty school and no money problem. So, instead of having Tennessee live so that the Doyles and Mosers can try to sift through the complicated historical intersections of their lives and try to create some kind of new familial relationship, Patchett just kills Tennessee off via some handy undetected internal bleeding. This, of course, ensures that Kenya is adopted and saved by Daddy Doyle and his money just like Tip and Teddy were.

Really, I can't tell you how disappointed I was by this ending, which I saw coming halfway through the book. After Bel Canto, I couldn't believe Patchett was actually going to wimp out and do this but she did. All I can think is that she got a little lazy, which is probably the worst adjective one could throw at a writer, but it seems too terribly apropos not to use. Had Patchett decided to explore how these two socially and financially divided families might try to come together in some unique way, she would have written a potentially phenomenal novel; as it stands, I think Run was, while often very engaging for her writing is still very good, ultimately a disappointment and for me, a failure.

I'll likely give Patchett at least one more shot before deciding that Bel Canto was the beautiful anomaly in her unexceptional oeuvre. But I have to admit that I'm even less excited and more nervous to do so than I was before I read Run. Sigh.


Heidenkind said...

*sigh* I hate lazy writing. Did Patchett write Run before or after Bel Canto? Maybe there's still hope....

verbivore said...

I'm not sure why but I skipped all the plot case I decide to read another Ann Patchett. I was ambivalent about Bel Canto, so that is another reason I'm not rushing out to read her other work. But it's too bad you didn't enjoy Run.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Yeah, that was basically my reaction to Run as well; I had such high hopes, but the transcendence of Bel Canto was nowhere to be felt.

Nan said...

I did so enjoy Bel Canto (except for the end!). For some reason I thought that she and Barbara Delinsky were related. Where did I get that idea? :<)

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: Run is the only novel written since Bel Canto. I'm sure there's still hope. But I worry nonetheless.

verbivore: Skipping the plot spoilers is totally fair - that's why they're so well-flagged!

Rohan: Exactly. I wish I could have been that concise in my review.

Nan: Not sure - I don't even know who Barbara Delinsky is!

Christy said...

Bel Canto is the only fiction work of Ann Patchett that I've read (and liked very much). I have also read and I recommend her non-fiction book Truth & Beauty which is about her friendship with author Lucy Grealy.

Bookphilia said...

Christy: I've heard really good things about Truth & Beauty so I'll try to remember to make that my next foray into Patchett's work. Thanks for the reminder!

Christy said...

I just remembered that I have read another of Patchett's novels: The Magician's Assistant. It was not as good as Bel Canto, but it was interesting. I remember that Patchett did well in capturing the main character's culture shock when she goes from California to visit a family in the wintry midwest.