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Stepping out

An accident on a snowy Cambridge street propels two families onto different paths in Run

(MICHELLE THOMPSON)

Run
By Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 295 pp., $25.95

Ann Patchett's mellifluous narrative intelligence has generally pursued universal themes in exotic situations. The extraordinary "Bel Canto," her previous novel, triumphed in part because its setting - a hostage situation in a South American country - became the backdrop for an elaborate choreography of human emotion under duress. In "Run," her fifth novel, the psychic crucibles are equally complex, but rendered on a stage of domestic familiarity: the hospitals and living rooms and snow-covered streets of a winter night and day in Boston, when one misstep sends a family into a labyrinth of new beginnings. If it lacks the striking innovation of "Bel Canto," it is no less emotionally precise, and contains the same hints of magical intervention - call it the kindness of the universe - that by now are a Patchett trademark.

An idealist and a widower, Bernard Doyle is the former mayor of Boston; since the death of Bernadette 15 years ago, he's devoted his life to their three sons. He's kind and pushy and a little holier-than-thou, which makes for a good, if irritating, dad - particularly to Sullivan, the redheaded prodigal who shows up occasionally just to drive a wedge further between them. The two younger sons, Tip (after O'Neill) and Teddy (after Kennedy), are easier, both with Doyle and with life in general. At 21, Tip has a mind of such quiet scientific focus that his singular passion is ichthyology - he would live at Harvard's comparative zoology lab, taking care of his fish, if he were allowed. Teddy, younger by a year, is the one with the warmth and expressiveness: He's Catholic, but the trinity to which he clings is a union of his beloved great-uncle (an aging priest), his mother's spirit, and the idea, or promise, of God - "the living and the dead and the life everlasting." Together, Tip and Teddy are a dyad of everything Doyle wanted for his boys, a wish made all the more poignant by the fact that they are black brothers, adopted by him and Bernadette when Teddy was a newborn. If Sullivan, with his Bernadette-like looks and mannerisms, has been a blood tie turned Gordian knot, his younger brothers have together had the emotional acumen to hold all of them together.

One night on a snowy street in Cambridge, this family tableau is almost destroyed, or at least badly altered. In the midst of a minor argument with Doyle, Tip steps off a curb and is nearly run down by an SUV - knocked out of the way at the last minute by a black woman passerby. The good Samaritan's name is Tennessee Moser, and her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, watches in horror as the woman saves Tip but takes the hit herself. The freak accident sends the entire constellation spiraling - into the emergency room at Mount Auburn Hospital, into the real meaning about why Tennessee was on that street, and toward a rearrangement, for Kenya, of life itself.

There are mysteries aplenty in "Run," a couple of which you don't see coming, and all of them add a shimmer of fate's glow to the story. Some moments are contrived: Sullivan, the wayward son who fails his father so predictably, seems excessively compassionate (even to near-strangers) for a guy so capable of blowing it. But Patchett's empathically rendered multiple points of view give us insight into myriad worlds simultaneously. While Tip is trying to comprehend the strange beauty of this girl who's crossed his path - Kenya is with the Doyles while her mother is in surgery - Tennessee is busy climbing through her past in a pre-surgery fog; the story she finds there is one of such heart and sorrow that it explains every tough choice she ever had to make. Sullivan, of course, must be revealed as something both more and less than what he seems; not so much a nemesis or an anti-Christ as a broken boy, even now.

And then there is the exquisite, bursting-at-the-seams Kenya - a girl who earns the title of the novel in one breathtaking scene, and who is as much a balm to the reader as she is to this new gaggle of men she finds herself among. Through her ever-mutable youth and sharp perceptions, we're privy to Boston's many worlds: its tony South End comforts a stone's throw away from housing projects, its spiritual and physical way stations, whether a zoology lab on a snowbound day or the sad, blurry room of a dying priest. Mostly, though, "Run" is a novel that yearns to capture the interior realms of its characters, all travelers toward some greater end whose lives intersect. Secrets have stayed secrets for reasons, it turns out, and behind the saddest of actions lies a moment where luck and redemption collude.

For all its emotional intricacy, the workaday realism of "Run" - most of it takes place during a 24-hour period - can seem colorless or pedestrian, particularly after Patchett's high-wire acts in previous novels. But the novel possesses an easy confidence, in conceit and delivery, and it boasts a few great descriptors: Patchett captures Teddy's innocence by reporting that he "had all the political acumen of a koala"; she gives us a beautiful encapsulation of the old priest's supple faith with this simple profundity: "Over the course of his lifetime, God and Father Sullivan had changed together."

"Run" is a graceful, deceptively straightforward novel, seeming as effortless as Kenya unfolding her legs on a city street. And yet it manages to deliver a story about race, attachment, and sacrifice. Nothing easy about that.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

See "Bookings," Page E6, for information on a local appearance by Ann Patchett.

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