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'Run' begins with an unexpected reunion

In her latest novel, Ann Patchett examines the nonbiological ties that shape a family.

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As fun evenings go, Tip Doyle probably would rank attending a political speech just above cleaning grout in a MBTA-station bathroom.

But his dad, the Irish-American onetime mayor of Boston, is determined to instill a love of politics in his adopted boys. While Bertram Doyle's success on that front has been dubious, he certainly has succeeded in instilling a love for him. So, despite finals and a winter-storm warning, the Harvard senior and his easygoing brother Teddy dutifully head over to the Kennedy Center (late) to listen to Jesse Jackson.

In the face of such filial devotion, it seems a little unfair that Tip gets run over by an SUV on his way out of the lecture. He might have been killed, but a woman shoves him out of the way, getting seriously injured herself in the process. At the hospital, the Doyles are confounded both by the woman's selflessness and also what to do about her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, who says she has no other family and no friends with whom she can stay. The temporary solution is to take her home. At first, Bertram resists, pointing out that you can't just walk off with a child. "Not a random little white girl," Tip points out. He and Teddy are African-American and used to navigating racial expectations. "But a random little black girl? I don't think anyone's going to stop us." Tip didn't get into Harvard for nothing, and they are in fact able to sashay out the door with an 11-year-old girl with her own reasons for wanting to stay with the Doyles.

The set-up for Run, Ann Patchett's fifth novel, is ripe for melodrama. But Patchett ("Bel Canto"), an accomplished, emotionally rich writer, isn't interested in histrionics. She brushes right by obvious opportunities for scenery-chewing in favor of quiet reflection and deep character study. Politics, religion, interracial adoption, family, and absent mothers are a few of the topics on the agenda.

The Doyle men, as Patchett details in her opening chapter, are united by loss: Four years after Tip and Teddy were adopted, their mom, Bernadette, died. She left behind one husband, three sons, and a statue that looked just like her.

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