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Ann Patchett's Tale of Two Families

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Ann Patchett has been on a stunning literary tear for most of this past decade. Each of her last few books has seemed better than the one before. The Magician's Assistant (1998) was "beguiling," according to a New York Times review. The fantastic Bel Canto (2001) won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Truth And Beauty (2004), Patchett's first book-length work of nonfiction, was a searing testament to its title.

Run isn't exactly a stumble, but Patchett's fifth novel hasn't provoked quite the same level of breathless critical or popular adoration.

Set over a period of 24 hours, the novel is about an unusual Boston family. The father is the former mayor, a widower and the white adoptive father of two African-American sons. Mothers hover in the margins, in memories and in representations like a religious icon passed down through generations. As a snowstorm approaches the city, a car accident throws the family into the life of a young black mother and sets off a series of unexpected events.

Fans of Patchett's empathic sensibilities and inimitably gorgeous prose may be surprised to learn that some critics have written disparagingly of her engagement with racial issues in Run, calling some of her characters stilted and unconvincing. But Patchett told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last year, "They can criticize me passionately if they think I didn't do a good job, but no one can say who I can write about."

This reading of Run took place in July 2008 at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.