In ‘Running,’ a makeshift family confronts the past

Cara Hoffman’s haunting, wistful third novel visits a group of friends in the past and present, as they face the consequences of a lost time.

“Running”

by Cara Hoffman

Simon & Schuster, 271 pp., $26

In our hyper-connected and gadget-bound age, the idea of living happily without possessions or email is almost subversive. And beneath the deceptive lyricism of her prose, Cara Hoffman has long shown a healthy fascination with upending the social order.

“People think they need things. Money or respect or clean sheets. But they don’t,” Hoffman writes in “Running,” her haunting and wistful third novel. “You can wash your hair and brush your teeth with hand soap. You can sleep outside. You can eat whatever’s there.”

The speaker of these words is Bridey, a parentless teenager from Washington state, surviving by guile and wit in late-1980s Athens with little to her name but the matches, lighter fluid and electrical tape she stores in her backpack. Bridey lives with two British expats: Jasper, a disaffected Eton dropout, and his lover, Milo, a poet from the projects. They occupy the top floor of a shady motel where, in return for free accommodations, they work as runners, beckoning weary tourists to book one of the grimy rooms below.

According to press materials, Hoffman herself lived similarly in younger years, getting by as a runner and taking notes for what would become this novel. No surprise. Her observations have the keen immediacy of lived scenes, similar to drawings sketched from life.

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But her story, which proceeds along two tracks — one past, one present — is somewhat more fantastic. Mostly it concerns a moneymaking scheme that inadvertently links Bridey, Jasper and Milo to a terrorist plot in which several innocents are murdered. Those memories echo still in the mind of Milo who, 25 years later, has become a famous poet and teacher in…

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