Barnaby Gaitlin is no prince. A quasi-reformed juvenile delinquent, Anne Tyler's anti-hero in her new novel, A Patchwork Planet, has just celebrated his 30th birthday alone, swilling beer in his dank basement apartment. Still, Barnaby is a disheveled handyman with a heart, and Tyler's 14th novel will not disappoint die-hard fans who cherish the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's knack for plainspoken storytelling.
Like most of Tyler's novels, A Patchwork Planet is set in a Baltimore suburb, capturing a year in the life of an eclectic array of characters, primarily, the Gaitlin family. Barnaby, the proverbial black sheep of the bunch, has never managed to overcome his tarnished teenage years, when he soiled the Gaitlin name after he was arrested for burglary. His affluent family orchestrates a charitable foundation, but Barnaby is not impressed. His ill-fated marriage to the wholesome girl-next-door ended in a divorce after the birth of their daughter, Opal. Now, his ex-wife has married a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer, and Barnaby has grown estranged from his only child.
A Patchwork Planet could have easily fallen into a predictable pattern, portraying the travails of a divorced dad who longs to be closer to his daughter. Tyler will have none of that with Barnaby, who is less than enthusiastic about his sporadic drives to Philly in his grandfather's old Corvette. Indeed, Barnaby is passionate about two things: searching for his angel a mythical Gaitlin tradition and helping his elderly clients at Rent-A-Back, where he tackles odd-jobs alongside his co-worker, a scrappy, anemic-looking waif named Martine. Of course, Barnaby is searching for love, which arrives in the form of a plump, sweet-faced banker named Sophia. At last, Barnaby seems to have settled down, as Sophia's hearty crock-pot meals and stolid serenity lull the former felon into a homespun nirvana. Even the Gaitlins approve of Sophia, and the romance blossoms with the blessing of Barnaby's persnickety mother, Margot. But A Patchwork Planet is not a love story, and Tyler is too talented to serve up a neat and tidy conclusion. A common thread running through all of Tyler's novels is the minutia of everyday the trips to the grocery store, the lace doilies and dusty furniture, and, above all, a deep respect for an average life. While many of Tyler's prior novels have revolved around the struggles facing couples with teenage children (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Ladder of Years), at 57, the novelist seems to be taking a long, hard look at the so-called Golden Years.
It is a reflection that is alternately comedic and tragic, and Tyler does not shy away from the raw truth. As Barnaby's aging clients whisper their fears and share their fading memories, he begins to believe that perhaps his search for a soul mate is pure folly. "At Rent-A-Back, I knew couples who'd been married almost forever. Finally, you're just with who you're with. You've signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she's become the right person."With A Patchwork Planet, Tyler has once again served up literary comfort food for the soul. While those who crave action and demand resolution may be frustrated by Tyler's character-driven plots, even the most cynical reader will be charmed by Barnaby, and above all, an assortment of silver-haired saints.
Reviewed by Karen A. Cullotta.