For years, Anne Tyler has been one of my few exceptions to the "I'll buy it in paperback" rule. Her characters leap off the pages and into my heart and mind. When I finished THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, I went on a Tyler reading binge. I've waited impatiently for each novel since. Some, inevitably, were destined to become favorites. A PATCHWORK PLANET currently tops this list.
In A PATCHWORK PLANET, Tyler returns to what she does best --- writing about the common lives of average people in a way that penetrates the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary. This is Barnaby Gaitlin's story. Barnaby, in his own words, is a "man you can trust." As the black sheep of an established and philanthropic Baltimore family, he lives on the margins. As teenagers, Barnaby and his friends went on thieving missions in their privileged neighborhoods. Barnaby, though, was far less interested in stealing people's property than using the window into their lives that breaking and entering and looking through their belongings presented to him. Barnaby was the one who got caught in the neighbors' bushes holding their valuable property, and he was sent off to the Renascence School, a special school for "the gifted young tester of limits."
When he got out of Renascence, he went to work for "Rent-A-Back," a business that sends strong young people to help folks put their Christmas trees up, move furniture, bring in the groceries, take out the trash --- whatever they need to continue to live independently. The work takes Barnaby into the homes and lives of people who have no reason not to trust him and build relationships with him. He likes the work because it puts him into their lives, allowing him to continue the voyeurism from his teens that has left him mostly on the outside of others' lives, looking in. And he likes these people, with their flaws and quirks, because they appreciate him, even with his flaws --- something most of his family is unable to do.
The Gaitlin family runs a charitable foundation, dispensing compassionate assistance to those in need yet unable to dispense forgiveness or understanding to their rogue son. Barnaby goes home for family gatherings, but he rarely finds happiness or acceptance there. His mother never loses an opportunity to remind him what he has cost the family in not only shame and heartache, but in the cold, hard cash it took to hush up his youthful misdeeds. The family sees only the commonness of his work, never understanding that he lives out the kind of compassion on a daily basis that they only experience from a benevolent, check-writing distance.
Grandfather Gaitlin began the foundation based on a message from an angel. Each Gaitlin since has waited for his angel to bring him a message for his life. While Barnaby waits and looks, he continues to rent out his back and offer his compassion to strangers, while trying to piece together relationships with his distant daughter, his parents, brother, and Sophia, who might or might not be his angel. She becomes his girlfriend, moving her Crock Pot into his world and giving him a sense of what passes with other people for "normal" life.
"Sophia" is Greek for "wisdom," and this Sophia appears to be the one who can help Barnaby put the pieces together. But Barnaby's life lessons are not like the pieces of the patchwork quilt of earth that one of his client is making. They must be learned in their own way. As he moves through the lives, heartaches, celebrations, and deaths of those around him, he opens their eyes and hearts to the presence of grace in the world. It is this grace that pieces all of us together --- "makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall to pieces at any moment."
Tyler moves the story with her own kind of grace, sharing this world, in its intricate and loving detail, with breath-taking prose. The three years since the publication of her last novel has been worth the wait.
Reviewed by Jeanny V. House on January 22, 2011
A Patchwork Planet