Monday, December 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

I did it! I successfully completed the TBR pile challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader)–with a month to spare. I’ve been so addicted to library books lately that I’ve been neglecting my challenges and then I realized how little time I had left and started to panic. So I read The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney last week and was then so close to finishing that I pulled Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet from my shelf and polished it off.

Way in the past, I read a few of Tyler’s books and always enjoyed them, but I fell out of the habit of reading her. I bought A Patchwork Planet at one of our library’s used book sales because I knew, from experience, I would like it. But I felt no particular urgency about reading it. It was one of my alternates for the challenge. When I decided to read it, I devoured it in a day.

The hero of the story is Barnaby Gaitlin. Barnaby had a very troubled adolescence that he is just now starting to shake off as he turns thirty. His family is close but dysfunctional and his role within it is "black sheep," which doesn’t do much for his self-esteem. He has an ex-wife and a nine-year-old daughter who live in Philadelphia. (Barnaby lives in Baltimore.) He sees his daughter only on the last Saturday of the month, an uncomfortable arrangement. His life is primarily defined by his job, one of irregular manual labor. He works for Rent-a-Back, hired by the hour by the elderly or disabled for various odd jobs. Barnaby is particularly good at this because he is patient and kind-hearted; he forms affectionate bonds with the clients.

Despite the fact that Barnaby is good at what he does and performs a valuable service for many people, he is underappreciated by his family. Ironically, his family are "The Gaitlins" of the Gaitlin Foundation. His father and brother sit on the board of a foundation for the indigent set up by a wealthy great-grandfather. They are credited with being "do-gooders" when in fact it is Barnaby who is doing good. Barnaby is criticized for his lifestyle and lack of money, the implication being that he is lazy and unambitious. In fact, he is very hard-working and conscientious. He simply values different things.

Barnaby’s life begins to change when he meets a woman who is practical, steady, slightly older than he is, and much more socially adept. She helps him to begin to mend some of his fences. He takes steps toward an adult relationship. He feels his life is moving forward at last.

But is it?

Tyler’s novels always are wonderful for their character explorations. Barnaby is typically quirky, as are the characters he deals with on a regular basis. Tyler explores issues of aging and dependence in a touching way that manages to be both sad and funny. The detailed vignettes of Barnaby’s daily life make him seem very real (as do his family and friends) even though (or perhaps because) they are all a little odd. And it is also very real that Barnaby’s problems are not wrapped up into a neat little package and solved at the end of the book. It has an abrupt and not entirely satisfying ending but a realistic one. The book is classic Anne Tyler and it reminds me why I find her books so readable. It’s all about the characters.

1 comment:

  1. Anne Tyler has been one of my favorite authors. Very few disappointments.