Run, by Ann Patchett

Accidental meeting leads to a slow-paced, emotional tale of two families
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Over the course of five sensitively written novels, Ann Patchett has rooted quietly around the midriff of tragedy, searching for a sweet spot. In the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto, love and fine music blossomed out of a botched siege in a poverty-stricken Latin American country. In Run, Patchett is at it again, with a different, familial love and a different music: that created by feet on asphalt. One freezing day in Boston, Doyle – who is a former Massachusetts mayor – and his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip, step out arguing into the street. A middle-aged woman called Tennessee jumps out and pushes Tip out of the way of an oncoming SUV, but the vehicle hits her, leaving her broken on the icy tarmac.

Tennessee, and her daughter Kenya, have a secret: the older woman is Tip and Teddy's birth mother, and has been keeping a (slightly disturbingly) close eye on them. The truth comes out as Kenya is taken in by Doyle and his boys while her mother awaits surgery. In Tennessee's view, Tip and Teddy got the opportunities she could never give them, going to a good, rich home and receiving the best education north-east America can offer anyone, never mind two black kids born in a housing project.

There is sadness in the Doyle house, too: the death of Bernadette, the twins' adoptive mother, and a scandal involving Doyle's errant oldest son, Sullivan. This being a Patchett novel, every major character seems to be suffering from some life-swallowing hurt. Does Patchett think she can put it all right? No, but she uses Kenya as a shiny key to unlock the parts of the Doyle family that have been shut off from each other.

Run doesn't move much. It largely takes place inside the Doyle town-house, in the hospital and at the running track where the gazelle-like Kenya leaves her troubles behind. What saves it from ever seeming inert is Patchett's way of getting inside her scenes and making them breathe. She always seems borderline ethereal, but when she steers towards the mystical, in scenes involving Tip and the "healer" Sullivan, she stays – unlike, say, Alice Hoffman – just the right side of the drippy and ditzy.

Her kind of practical magic comes from the emotional pitch she can inject into a scene involving three estranged people making coffee, her belief in the power of the happyish ending, and a faith in humanity that seems to be growing stronger with every book.

Bloomsbury, £14.99. Order for £13.50 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897