A family-of-man fable that reads a little too pat to ring true.
Like the popular previous novel by Patchett (Bel Canto, 2001), this one finds an unexpected incident connecting and affecting a seemingly disparate cast of characters, isolating them within their own microcosm. The setting is Boston—very Catholic, very political, very racially divided—on the snowiest evening in more than two decades, when a large group gathers to hear a speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Among them is widower Bernard Doyle, once the city’s mayor until a scandal involving his oldest son compromised his career (one of the underdeveloped subplots here). Still a political junkie, Doyle wants his two adopted, college-age African-American sons to express more interest in his passion. Though he’d had high political aspirations for these two—even going so far as to name them Tip and Teddy—both are pursuing different paths. Tip wants to be a scientist studying fish; Teddy hears the call of the priesthood, likely inspired by his adoptive mother’s uncle, the elderly Father Sullivan. The priest has reluctantly gained notoriety as a faith healer (another underdeveloped subplot), though he doesn’t believe he has extraordinary powers, and his own faith has become shaky. Leaving the Jackson speech, Tip steps amid the swirling snow into the path of an SUV. A woman with her young daughter pushes him out of the way, letting the SUV hit her. Is the woman Tip’s real mother? (And Teddy’s?) Is the young daughter their sister? Why do she and her mother seem to know so much more about the Doyles than they know about her? What do we make of the statue of the Virgin Mary that looks so much like the only mother Tip and Teddy have known? And what about that significant plot twist revealed in conversation between a dead woman and one who may be dying? By the time the extended family converges on the hospital, it has become plain that neither these people nor this family can ever be the same.
Compelling story but thematically heavy-handed.