A Patchwork Planet

by Anne Tyler

Cover image

Publisher: Fawcett
Copyright: 1998
Printing: March 1999
ISBN: 0-449-00398-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 288

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Barnaby Gaitlin is the black sheep of his family, a 30-year-old son of a well-off local family that largely devotes its time to the family charitable foundation. He never graduated from college and he works as a laborer for Rent-a-Back, a company that sends over laborers to do odd jobs, move furniture, and do household chores, generally for elderly people. He's divorced, sees his daughter only one day a month, and has a criminal record.

This is Tyler's unconventional first-person narrator. Barnaby's life is something of a mess, and from his narrative voice one gets the impression that he's not horribly bright (and has trouble with impulse control). Nonetheless, he succeeds as the viewpoint for the reader in part because Barnaby is fascinated by people. The story opens with him overhearing in a train station a man asking a random stranger to carry his daughter's passport with her to Philadelphia since she forgot it, and then following the woman who accepts this errand to see what happens. We learn later that his criminal record comes from breaking into people's houses and going through their private pictures and letters while his friends stole valuables. Barnaby is a little creepy, a little uncomfortable, but so obviously big-hearted and generous as the story progresses that one comes to like him anyway.

This is a slice of life story with no single theme, or even a single unifying plot. It is, to some degree, constructed around Barnaby's romance with Sophia, the woman he follows at the start of the story and then works up the courage to approach again later. But mixed in and not directly connected is the awkward difficulty of Barnaby's relationship with his daughter (and ex-wife), his family history and problems with his mother, and the lives of the elderly customers he helps as part of his job. Rather than making any single statement about humanity, A Patchwork Planet is full of small observations and captured moments that spark a frission of recognition or perspective shift.

There are also moments of frustration and recoil. Barnaby has a very interested, outgoing voice that describes even bad decisions with a sort of manic energy but hides problems and past troubles. He is, at times, still creepy in his fascination with people, and one senses from his relationship with his mother how he might have started acting out and searching for a sense of family that he didn't have. He's struggling with deep-seated patterns that aren't obvious at first, and they're not always comfortable reading. The tension between his light narrative voice and the wrongness that the reader senses below the surface creates much of the fascination of this novel, but one still occasionally feels like one is watching a train wreck. Much is also left realistically unresolved; there is some conclusion, but many threads of his life are left dangling.

The best part of the book for me was Barnaby's determination to get out of his mother's debt, not to live the life that she wants him to live, and remove anything legitimate she has over his head. This part of the story shows a deep human dignity in Barnaby that resonates through the story, a sense of independence, honor, and trustworthiness that his clients respond to and that makes his obsessions more bearable and readable. One of the challenges of the story is analyzing whether Barnaby can actually be trusted, and while grappling with that question, one learns something about the complexities and fragility of being trustworthy.

This book never provoked strong emotions for me or deeply engrossed me in the plot, but I still read it in two sittings. Tyler is an astute observer of people and her characterization is beautifully honest. Some of the people in this book are a mess, none of them are perfect, and Barnaby is painful to read about in places, but I came away feeling I had gained some subtle breadth of human recognition that I'd not had before.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-25

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