For a passionate reader, there's nothing more wonderful than falling in love with a new book by a previously unknown author. Because you have no expectations, you experience an exhilarating sense of discovery; the work stands on its own. So when you learn that the author is coming out with another book, you're eager to recapture that feeling. Unfortunately, you can fall in love for the first time only once. This month, best-selling authors Ann Patchett ("Bel Canto") and Alice Sebold ("The Lovely Bones") provide more evidence for that sad truth.
Patchett's much-admired 2001 novel brilliantly explored the intricate psychological ties between terrorists and hostages during a siege at an elegant party in Lima, Peru. Her new novel, "Run," zeroes in on what could have been an equally compelling dynamic: an Irish-American family in Boston with two adopted African-American boys. Boston seems the perfect setting, given the city's tense racial history. But Patchett creates a Boston so generic (to this native daughter) that it could easily be Des Moines or Sacramento. The story hinges on what first appears to be a miraculous coincidence. One of the adopted sons is saved from being hit by a car through the intervention of a stranger. Soon afterward, this coincidence turns out to be anything but—his savior is actually his birthmother, who has been silently observing her sons, now in their 20s, since she gave them up two decades earlier. Just as you're about to be drawn in to this heartbreaking drama, Patchett pulls back by smoothing out all the potentially interesting rough edges to her characters. No one emerges as a secret racist; everyone does his bit when called on. The result is a series of stilted encounters that seem not quite believable. It's particularly frustrating because Patchett is such a gifted stylist and "Run" contains so many poetic passages. But these lyrical parts do not add up to an emotionally coherent whole. "Run" loses speed long before the finish line.
The nature of motherhood also figures prominently in Sebold's new novel, "The Almost Moon," but the overall tone is unrelentingly-grim and will probably turn off "Lovely Bones" fans. In the opening scene, a middle-aged woman kills her senile and frail elderly mother. True, the mother was a monster in many ways. But it's hard to get past the idea that it's OK to smother someone by pushing towels into her face just because the old woman has emptied her bowels in her underpants—the stink is what sends the daughter over the edge. The rest of the novel functions as a justification of the murder, revealing the requisite family history of mental illness and suicide. "Bleak House" would be a better title.
These two disappointing novels share one more irksome trait. Both use an increasingly popular literary technique that by this time verges on gimmickry—setting the action in a 24-hour period. Masters like James Joyce, Ian McEwan or Philip Roth may make this work, but why does everyone else have to follow suit? Enough!