Book review: Run Rose Run

James Walton 1 March 2022

A big-hearted tale of music and perseverance from a living country legend is our top literary pick this month

In 2018 the ever-prolific James Patterson got together with Bill Clinton to write the best-selling The President Is Missing: a novel that combined Clinton’s insider knowledge with Patterson’s own taste for old-fashioned, slightly corny thrills. Now he does something very similar with the international treasure that is Dolly Parton.

Not altogether surprisingly, the main setting is Nashville, where a young singer-songwriter called AnnieLee Keyes arrives with nothing but talent and a crazy dream. She even has to borrow a guitar when she persuades the manager of a randomly chosen bar to let her sing a few of her songs at an open-mic night, which naturally ends in triumph. 

Not only that, but as luck (and the book’s needs) would have it, the bar is owned by Ruthanna Ryder, “one of country music’s grandest queens”, who soon takes AnnieLee under her kindly, regal wing. Within a couple of months, a star is duly born.

From there, though, things go rather less smoothly—not least because AnnieLee is nursing a sorrow so secret that it takes us most of the novel to discover it. 

"From there, though, things go rather less smoothly—not least because AnnieLee is nursing a sorrow so secret that it takes us most of the novel to discover it"

Obviously, I won’t spoil the big reveal. But I can say that Run Rose Run deploys every trick in the thriller manual to get there—including a baddie who laughs “maniacally” and a moment when, in a scene of especial peril in a darkened house, a sinister noise turns out to herald the entrance of a cat.

Along the way, we get plenty of genuinely interesting information about the country-music world (Dolly, incidentally, is releasing an album of songs from the book). We also get lots of impeccably down-home similes such as “skinnier than a guitar string” and “sweating like a sinner in church”. 

The result is a novel that, not unlike Dolly herself, mixes commercial calculation with an irresistibly big heart. Sterner readers might notice that not everything in it is entirely plausible. Yet surely even they will be swept along by the sheer, frankly bonkers fun of the whole thing. Which only goes to show the truth of a tip that AnnieLee is given early on—that “shamelessness sure as hell don’t hurt”.

Reader’s Digest Recommended Read: A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich by Matt Knott 

In autumn 2008, Matt Knott was at a loose end. After graduating from Cambridge, he was back living with his teacher-parents in Dorset. His plan to write “a heartwarming comedy set in the fictional town of Piddle Newton” wasn’t going well. And the global economy had just collapsed. 

So when he heard you could earn £30 an hour tutoring rich people’s children in London, he joined an agency there run by a woman called Philippa. Before long, he’d entered a strange new world where “PJs” were private jets rather than pyjamas—and where, luckily for his purposes, a Cambridge-educated tutor for your child was a status symbol to rival a Gucci handbag.

Knott’s initial duties were as a “study buddy”, which, in theory, involved supervising homework and, in practice, fighting off his tutees’ pleas to do it for them. But there were perks too, such as accompanying families to St Moritz and Tuscany—where popping out to dinner meant taking a helicopter to a restaurant in Rome.

Here, Knott looks back on his experiences with a convincing range of emotions. There’s certainly indignation at the unexamined social privilege he encountered. Yet there’s also sympathy for the children under such pressure to get into a good (ie, expensive) school, even when they’re palpably not up to it. Meanwhile Knott, who describes himself as “very, very gay”, keeps us fully up to date with his largely unsuccessful love life—sometimes in fairly explicit detail. Whatever he’s writing about, though, he’s generally extremely funny, in a book that fizzes with great one-liners.

Matt Knott, photo credit: Max Colson

In this extract, he’s about to meet a mother and son from somewhere near the bottom of the new social scale he’s coming to know—with the aim of helping out on GCSE coursework about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

"Once you were assigned a job, you were provided with the client’s full name and address. I had developed a habit of googling not only postcodes but the clients themselves. It rarely turned up more than a LinkedIn profile or some Getty Images from a fundraiser for endangered bears, but when I looked up Carolyn, I discovered that she was the author of a personal blog where she described herself as a ‘self-professed yummy mummy’.

This was a fascinating way to identify. Was it only here, on her blog, that she professed to yummy mummy status, or did she go around telling people? Maybe Carolyn’s word was not to be trusted. An anonymous reader had taken issue with the fact that she claimed to be a lifelong Kensington resident. ‘I’m sorry,’ they had written, ‘but that’s a bit misleading. Didn’t she move to *North* Kensington?’ 

"I had developed a habit of googling not only postcodes but the clients themselves"

What was wrong with North Kensington? This reader was making it sound like Carolyn had glossed over her investments in North Korea. When I arrived at her address, it was a smart four-storey townhouse that had to be worth several million. Carolyn was very trim and dressed in Ugg boots and a fur gilet. In fact, it’s what I would have worn if I was going as a yummy mummy to a fancy dress party. 
‘It’s all a bit of a mystery, Matt,’ Carolyn said as if we were old friends. ‘Historically Horace was always in the top third of his year.’ 

I presumed she meant the lower end of the top third, since here was a woman who would not have hesitated to place her son in the top quarter or fifth, nor even to whip out a pie chart highlighting his flair for algebra, had the data allowed. This job was beyond the usual remit of a study buddy, but I had written my own GCSE coursework on the play in question and had convinced Philippa to let me branch out.
‘Horace is waiting for you in his room,’ said Carolyn. 

I made my way up to the top floor, passing a room with an exercise bike that I imagined Carolyn punishing herself on each morning. Horace was chubby and chirpy, with a weird familiarity which made me wonder if he had got me confused with another tutor. But no—it was that upper class confidence again. Beyond that, Horace didn’t present much evidence of his heady days in the lower end of the top third. He was keen to get this over with, but appeared to think it was something that would happen without any input from him.

‘What did you think of the text?’, I asked. 

‘I haven’t read it,’ Horace said cheerily. ‘But I’ve seen the film.’  ‘Oh, OK. What did you think of that?’ 

Horace stared at me as if this question couldn’t possibly have been anticipated. 

‘To be honest, I wasn’t really watching.’

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