Sometimes a book will come along and just suck you in from the get-go, pulling you along in its wake through some kind of literary alchemy. Running, the third novel by author Cara Hoffman, is such a book. Hoffman gives Running its velocity through a canny marriage of gorgeous language and razor-sharp plotting, making the book satisfying as a page-by-page experience and also as an entire work.

Though Running jumps about in terms of time and place, it is set primarily in the ‘80s in Athens, Greece. The three main characters are all runners, people who lure tourists to substandard hotels for a commission and a place to sleep. Though they’re actions are sometimes unforgivable, girl-on-the-run (and sometimes narrator) Bridey, beautiful and fragile Jasper and boxer-turned-poet Milo are impossible not to root for. They are each other’s chosen family and the life they build together is exhilarating in its rule-breaking. In the beginning, many phrases speak to the aimless freedom of the “running” life. As Bridey says, “We were looking for nothing and found it in Athens.”

The opening of the book takes place years after its primary events and that opening contains the death of a major character, so there is a melancholy edge to the story right from the get-go. But it is a testament to the strength of Hoffman’s writing and the complexity of her characters that many moments transcend the reader’s prescient knowledge. Even though we know things don’t end well, the novel still manages to be lighthearted at times, sexy at others and always interesting.

Though Running is very effective when taken as a whole, it also works in smaller portions, with many of its chapters reading like short stories. In these chapters, Hoffman is reminiscent of the great American writer Amy Bloom in that she is unafraid to meander in order to explain a character or action, and in that meandering she creates sub-stories filled with love, violence and intrigue. For example, the novel’s second chapter tells the story of Jasper and Milo’s meeting and though it is less than four pages long it is the most tender and true love story that anyone has written in a good long time.

The setting and characters are diverse without being overkill. Though representation is always a good things, many writers fall into the trap of introducing a united nations of characters without bothering to actually develop those characters. Though Hoffman’s characters come from all over, she treats them carefully, refusing to embrace cultural stereotype and instead sparking them to life with the best kind of kindling: relationships, desires and flaws.

Despite the period setting, Running is painfully current. The protagonists are defined by an act of terror, and many of its characters face the kind of economic insecurity that young people are facing today. Despite this universality, however, Running is not an allegory. It is relatable, but its characters are wonderfully individual. Though what happens to them may be familiar, their reactions to these events are carefully unique.

Running is also a notable work in terms of queer representation. At first, the sexual fluidity of the characters feels like a bit of a stretch, but as these characters are defined their sexuality becomes all the more powerful. Hoffman writes love beautifully and hopefully, and even when the conclusion is tragic, the heart of the relationships she writes about is optimistic.

Running is also the rare book that acknowledges the diversity of poor lives, and their sexual roles play into that. Sex is different when you’re poor, as are friendship, eating, traveling and almost everything else. Hoffman bravely allows her characters to be defined by characteristics other than their poverty without pushing it entirely out of sight.

Above all, Running is a testament to its author’s clear-eyed writing, which acknowledges even the most intangible of feelings with an erudite fluency that should thrill readers. Hoffman simply states things like, “He gave us something we couldn’t have taken from him if we’d tried,” and in doing so she opens a window into her characters’ souls. Running is a fearless, painful and hopeful journey, and Cara Hoffman has announced herself as a great talent.

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