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Two Novels for the Next Snowstorm
March 16, 2017 -- Frequent flyers will remember the bad old days of storm-related cancellations and delays. Not only was your schedule ruined, there you were in the airport club without enough to read because you jettisoned a few heavy books to keep your carry-on bag light.
Thankfully, those days are over. Every "book" is an instant download to your laptop, tablet or e-reader. You needn't rely on the slim pickings available at the airport newsstand, most of which are bad romance novels or dreary memoirs of a recently retired politician.
So if it snows some more in the next few days, here are two thrillers--one of espionage and one of familial relationships--that you can download to pass the time.
THE FAMILY TIES THAT BIND
Run, the fifth novel by the talented Ann Patchett, wasn't a runaway best-seller or critics favorite like 2001's Bel Canto or even 2011's State of Wonder. It is quieter and less dramatic and is unlikely to be the basis of a full-fledged opera as Bel Canto was.
Yet Run is compelling for its characters and nuanced treatment of race, career aspirations, politics and family history. This tale of how the arrival of two strangers affects the fate of one family will probably stay with you, as it has with me. First published in 2007, Run offers a unique narrative. Except for one chapter, it is told over 24 hours against the backdrop of a treacherous snowstorm.
We meet crusty widower Bernard Doyle, the Irish Catholic former mayor of Boston who has been forced from public life by an unfortunate family incident. Doyle and his wife had been raising Tip and Teddy, black adopted brothers, who are special in their own spheres of interest. Tip, the older, is hooked on the science of fish and works in the local aquarium. He has every intention of spending his life as an ichthyologist. The younger, Teddy, is motivated by powerful humanitarian and religious instincts. He spends much of his time with an uncle, an elderly, retired priest.
Motivated by Bernard's passion for politics and undeterred by the twenty-something boys' indifference, the three fight their way through a storm to hear the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Afterwards, Tip narrowly avoids a serious accident when a black woman pushes him out of the way of an oncoming car and is critically injured. The woman has been accompanied by her 11-year-old daughter, Kenya, who meets the Doyles at the hospital where Tennessee, her mother, has been rushed, and where Tip is being treated for a relatively minor injury. From here on out, the plot takes some unusual turns that are both unexpected and satisfying.
Kenya comes to spend the night at home with the Doyles in the South End. Meanwhile, Teddy brings the uncle, who has developed an unwanted reputation as a miracle healer, to the hospital where the severely injured Tennessee is in a coma. Tennessee has a peculiar dream in which she speaks to another woman named Tennessee, a dream that includes a major revelation.
A major subplot, heavy with symbolism and religious mysticism, involves a statue of a red-haired Virgin Mary. It resembles Doyle's red-headed dead wife, Bernadette, and other women in the Doyle family. It has been passed down over the years by the female Doyles. The question now: Who will inherit the coveted statue in the absence of a female heir? The statue's back story and who keeps it offer insights into the family's history and religious beliefs.
Then there's the novel's title, which could be a reference to both Bernard's political aspirations as well as Kenya's talent. An exceptional and precocious runner, she runs to escape the poverty that has engulfed her and her mother as well as the racism that surrounds them. (We may also assume that Kenya's name is a reference to the homeland of the foremost athletes on the track circuit.)
All in all, I found Run to be a nice counterpoint to much of the violence-based fiction we encounter these days.
LOVE, LIES AND THE SPY GAME
Author Ian McEwan could not have foretold how timely the topic of lying, whether used in commerce, romance, diplomacy, espionage--or political strategy--would become when he wrote Sweet Tooth. McEwan, who has written more than a dozen novels, several of which have won major book awards, is his usual clever and provocative self in this 2012 bestseller.
Set in 1970s England at the height of the Cold War, when there was no debate on which countries were the enemies, Sweet Tooth focuses on the nuanced art of lying. It is executed with the wit and innovation that one expects of McEwan's work. It's spy versus scribe in a book that's clever and entertaining.
Sweet Tooth revolves around a young lady who has a brief romance with a much older Cambridge professor, a liaison that leads her into a career as a low-ranking operative at MI5, Great Britain's renowned spy agency.
The brass at MI5 decides to secretly subsidize ten authors who they believe are anti-communist. MI5 wants to make sure their stories carefully promote the view of Great Britain that the establishment once perpetuated. The funds for this charade are distributed under the guise of a stipend, supposedly without strings, from neutral organizations and charities without political objectives. Serena, the heroine and narrator, is assigned to Tom Haley, one of the authors. To no one's surprise, she falls in love with Tom, a brilliant but erratic young writer whose short stories are filled with love and deceit. He is supposed to believe that her motives are as pure as the driven English pound. Or was it the Soviet ruble?
Not unexpectedly, Tom reciprocates Serena's passion and they seem on the way to a perfect and permanent union. Ah, but herein lies the rub. Serena has never told Tom about the deceit she has perpetuated. She's convinced their love will be seen as an illusion when he finds out. What might have been a lasting relationship will be shattered forever, she believes.
I won't go any further with this plot line except to mention that there is another complication: a young spy at MI5 who is in effect Serena's handler. He's ditched his fiancée in the hopes of capturing Serena's hand.
There is more posturing, more lying and deliberate distortion. As Sweet Tooth moves toward its climax, the mendacious dealings march inevitably to a conclusion that most of us would probably expect. Except we are in for one big surprise. Naturally, it all has to do with the nature of deceit in its many and various guises.
This column is Copyright © 2017 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2017 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.