A Patchwork Planet
Anne Tyler's novels are a particular pleasure to read, and not just for the author's astute, delicately rendered observations and simple, luminous writing style. Anyone who has ever lived in Baltimore can read A Patchwork Planet with a second level of appreciation for Tyler's affection for and knowledge of city neighborhoods and their unique charms.
In fact, Baltimore figures as something of a character in the story of Barnaby Gaitlin, lovable loser. Born to a wealthy family, Barnaby at first glance appears to have rejected upper-class respectability and drifted down to life as a one-paycheck-away-from-homelessness laborer: He lives in a rented room and works a no-future job for Rent-a-Back, a company that runs errands and provides help to elderly and disabled clients.
As the novel unfolds, Tyler skillfully uses city geography as character analogy. Barnaby's parents, with their class-conscious stuffiness and stifled emotions, live in a Tudor-style home in Guilford, while his affectionate and unpretentious grandparents are in lively, blue-collar Canton. And Barnaby lives in the basement of an anonymous duplex on the far eastern end of Northern Parkway. For most of the reading world these are obscure references indeed, but anyone familiar with Baltimore can appreciate Tyler's choices of neighborhoods as clever and highly appropriate, providing shorthand clues to a complex fictional family.
This is but one example of Tyler's greatest gift as a novelist: her ability to pay attention, to capture the smallest of quotidian details that are instantly, wonderfully recognizable. A Patchwork Planet is rich with such details. Barnaby notices that a Christmas-tree ornament is a snowflake "snipped from gift wrap so old that the Santas were smoking cigarettes." And there's this description of an elderly woman and her dog: "Over her forearm she carried a Yorkshire terrier, neatly folded like a waiter's napkin."
Occasionally Tyler successfully uses these observational details to illustrate significant emotional moments, such as when Barnaby must have a difficult telephone conversation with his girlfriend. "Some other phone seemed to be mixing in with ours, tiny distant voices I couldn't quite decipher, a woman burbling away and another woman laughing. . . . I felt as if we'd plugged into not just another conversation but another time, simpler and more innocent; and here I was in this muddy, confused life of mine."
As in most Tyler novels, the plot of A Patchwork Planet is small in scope, nearly incidental to the great emotional distances the main character travels. Nearly 30, Barnaby Gaitlin is an already-divorced college dropout whose determined self-defeat exasperates his family--especially his social-climbing mother, who still dwells upon the humiliation she suffered in Barnaby's high school days when he was arrested for burglary. But the gently unfolding story eventually leads both the reader and Barnaby to the discovery that he is no longer the feckless loser everyone--himself included--assumes him to be.
Tyler's unlikely protagonist has become a good man, reliable and considerate, living his own version of a responsible life, something the elderly Rent-a-Back clients have known all along. Rather than simply writing checks for charitable causes as his upstanding family does, Barnaby goes out and commits good acts every day. In the process of self-discovery, Barnaby learns that life is much like the novel's namesake patchwork quilt--"Planet Earth . . . was makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall to pieces at any given moment." Clumsy yes, but also beautiful when executed with love and the best of intentions.