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Fans will recognize, in this opening cocktail of Baltimore, frayed family ties, and the fateful encounter of strangers, the simultaneously mundane and magical world of Anne Tyler. They may find, however, that in A Patchwork Planet the mundane overwhelms the magical. Tyler's 14th novel is narrated with wry bafflement by 29-year-old Barnaby, whose life has gone off the rails since he was caught robbing neighborhood homes as an adolescent. A true Tyler protagonist, Barnaby seeks out the detritus of human relationships rather than looting stereos and jewelry: "Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent, I used to break into houses and read people's private mail. Also photo albums ... I sat on the sofa poring over somebody's wedding pictures." To the despair of his distant father, his social-climbing mother, his chilly ex-wife and his prematurely patriarchal brother, Barnaby now works for a company called Rent-a-Back, doing odd jobs for elderly clients.
He also waits, without much hope, for a visitation from the Gaitlin angel. It was such an angel — a "big, tall woman with golden hair coiled in a braid on top of her head" — who first suggested to Barnaby's great-grandfather the invention of the wooden dress-form that made the Gaitlins rich. We know that Barnaby will find his angel, though perhaps not where he first looks; we also know that his search will lead him through family crises and reconciliations. Indeed, the theme and action of A Patchwork Planet, as in all of Tyler's novels, can be summed up in Barnaby's reflections on how "these family messes" are temporarily resolved: "The most unforgivable things got ... oh, not forgiven. Never forgiven. But swept beneath the rug, at least; brushed temporarily to one side; buried in a shallow grave."
In A Patchwork Planet, however, the shallow burials and exhumations of the familiar Tyler types — the passive, lovable loser man, the provocatively undernourished girl, the less-than-loving mother — seem more mechanical than epiphanic. The characters are exasperatingly, rather than charmingly, quirky: As Barnaby misses one more appointment or confesses to having once attempted to torch his parents' house, the reader may share his family's annoyance. Tyler's best novels, such as Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, hit their targets — her readers' hearts — with a gentle but satisfying jolt. They expose the damage done by familial negotiations, but insist on the possibility of consolation. A Patchwork Planet diverts, but its characters' wounds don't go very deep, and their recoveries fail to inspire.
A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
"A PERFECT GEM...TYLER'S BOOKS GET WISER, FUNNIER AND RICHER AS THEY GO."
--The Seattle Times
"SO WONDERFULLY READABLE THAT ONE SWALLOWS IT IN A SINGLE GULP...What makes this novel so irresistible is the main character and narrator Barnaby Gaitlin, a 30-year-old misfit, a renegade who is actually a kind-hearted man struggling to find his place in the world."
"IF WE BELIEVE THAT SERIOUS NOVELS ARE ABOUT THE SEARCH FOR A TRUE HOME, THEN A PATCHWORK PLANET IS A NOVEL THAT REPAYS OUR ALWAYS DELIGHTED ATTENTION."
--Carol Shields, The New York Times Book Review
"POSSESSES A TENDERNESS REMINISCENT OF BREATHING LESSONS...[Tyler] is beloved not just for her three-dimensional Baltimore or her quirkily intimate characters, but also for the small, heroic struggles they encounter in the course of a day."
--The Boston Sunday Globe
"VINTAGE TYLER...A PATCHWORK PLANET TELLS THE HEART-TUGGING STORY OF THE SINS OF THE BOY BEING VISITED ON THE MAN."
"FRESH AND ENGAGING."
"Filled with insight and compassion, Anne Tyler's 14th novel chronicles a year in the life of a 30-year-old 'loser' named Barnaby Gaitlin....Tyler has crafted a remarkably lovable character, a young man as endearing as Macon Leary, the memorable protagonist of her 1985 bestseller, The Accidental Tourist."
--Minneapolis Star Tribune
"What resonates throughout the novel is Tyler's gentle wisdom. Her understanding of the complexities of human nature comes across beautifully, making this book a singular treat....She endows the tale of Barnaby's eventual self-discovery and redemption with charm, quiet humor and many bittersweet observations on the meaning of emotional connectedness with those around us, the aging process and the ability we all possess to start afresh."
--The Miami Herald
"This could only be Tyler territory, where losers are treated with a tenderness that encourages them to consider winning in the world. In her 14th novel, the persuasive storyteller with the beautiful, unforced style works her familiar ground--family, connection, the quirks of humans--with ease."
"A Patchwork Planet is filled with descriptions that summarize an entire way of life in a single image....[Tyler's] genius lies in making quotidian events extraordinarily poignant."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"In an uncertain world, it's reassuring to know for an absolute fact that Anne Tyler's next novel (and the one after that and the one after that) will cause me to shiver at truths that I recognize but have never heard voiced, pinch me sharply with its poignancy and catch me off guard with funny moments that make me laugh so hard I have to put the book down until I get a grip on myself. Tyler's 14th novel, A Patchwork Planet, does all that."
--San Diego Union Tribune
Tyler's many admirers are sure to number this among her very best work....[Her] appealing warmth and flair for eccentric comedy are abundantly displayed in her superb 14th novel."
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"It is Tyler's great talent to involves us thoroughly with her characters. With a keen eye for detail and the sense of humanity that she displayed in her 1985 novel The Accidental Tourist, Tyler brilliantly portrays their foibles, their disappointments and their hopes. Barnaby Gaitlin is one of her most sympathetic creations."
"A Patchwork Planet, Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler's 14th novel, finds the black-sheep son of an old Baltimore family attempting to get his life on track....Recalls Tyler's early works, such as Celestial Navigation and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which...are peopled by genuine eccentrics whose grip on the world is charmingly, but definitely, precarious...Anne Tyler lovingly captures that world."
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Writing with humor and pathos worthy of her previous works, Tyler continues to make distinctive observations about the quirks and peculiarities of domestic life and the struggle of some lost souls to be part of a world where everyone else seems focused on the beaten path."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"I adore Anne Tyler...It's hard to imagine any other writer...whom you can read with such unalloyed pleasure."
--San Jose Mercury News
"This is a wonderful novel--don't miss it!...A Patchwork Planet is like a crazy quilt with familiar fabrics which, when assembled, becomes unique."
"THIS IS A BOOK YOU CAN TRUST. . . .
Tyler understands this modest world, both its frustrations and its rewards. With each funny, painful novel, she adds another square to her tapestry of redemption."
--The Christian Science Monitor
"Always entertaining...Anne Tyler once again creates characters that are believable, funny and true....In Barnaby Gaitlin, Tyler has created a character who looks into the mirror of self-revelation and finds not only flaws but redeeming qualities as well."
"A sophisticated, poignant and carefully crafted chart of the vicissitudes of trust."
--Time Out New York
"I don't know whether anyone has called Tyler a fin-de-siècle Jane Austen. I guess I'll do it here. Like Austen's, Tyler's books are full of life's little lessons, closely observed and compassionately recounted....A Patchwork Planet is filled with pleasure and pain. That the pleasure triumphs is [Tyler's] final kindness to us, her readers."
--Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
"The novel is wise and funny....Not only a colorful snapshot of youth but a compassionate picture of old age...With exquisite description and flawless dialogue, Tyler dignifies the lives of miraculously ordinary characters."
--New York Daily News
"Alternately comedic and tragic...With A Patchwork Planet, Tyler has once again served up literary comfort food for the soul."
Come to think of it, I am the one who doesn't take it for granted.
On the very last day of a bad old year, I was leaning against a pillar in the Baltimore railroad station, waiting to catch the 10:10 a.m. to Philadelphia. Philadelphia's where my little girl lives. Her mother married a lawyer there after we split up.
Ordinarily I'd have driven, but my car was in the shop and so I'd had to fork over the money for a train ticket. Scads of money. Not to mention being some appointed place at some appointed time, which I hate. Plus, there were a lot more people waiting than I had expected. That airy, light, clean, varnished feeling I generally got in Penn Station had been crowded out. Elderly couples with matching luggage stuffed the benches, and swarms of college kids littered the floor with their duffel bags. This gray-haired guy was walking around speaking to different strangers one by one. Well-off guy, you could tell: tan skin, nice turtleneck, soft beige car coat. He went up to a woman sitting alone and asked her a question. Then he came over to a girl in a miniskirt standing near me.
I had been thinking I wouldn't mind talking to her myself.
She had long blond hair, longer than her skirt, which made it seem she'd neglected to put on the bottom half of her outfit. The man said, "Would you by any chance be traveling to Philadelphia?"
"Well, northbound, yes," she said, in this shallow, breathless voice that came as a disappointment.
"But to Philadelphia?"
"No, New York, but I'll be — "
"Thanks anyway," he said, and he moved toward the next bench.
Now he had my full attention. "Ma'am," I heard him ask an old lady, "are you traveling to Philadelphia?" The old lady answered something too mumbly for me to catch, and instantly he turned to the woman beside her. "Philadelphia?" Notice how he was getting more and more sparing of words. When the woman told him, "Wilmington," he didn't say a thing; just plunged on down the row to one of the matched-luggage couples. I straightened up from my pillar and drifted closer, looking toward Gate E as if I had my mind on my train. The wife was telling the man about their New Year's plans. They were baby-sitting their grandchildren who lived in New York City, she said, and the husband said, "Well, not New York City proper, dear; White Plains," and the gray-haired man, almost shouting, said, "But my daughter's counting on me!" And off he raced.
Well, I was going to Philadelphia. He could have asked me. I understood why he didn't, of course. No doubt I struck him as iffy, with my three-day growth of black stubble and my ripped black leather jacket and my jeans all dust and cobwebs from Mrs. Morey's garage. But still he could have given me a chance. Instead he just flicked his eyes at me and then swerved off toward the bench at the end of the room. By now he was looking seriously undermedicated. "Please!" he said to a woman reading a book. "Tell me you're going to Philadelphia!"
She lowered her book. She was thirtyish, maybe thirty-five — older than I was, anyhow. A schoolmarm sort, in a wide brown coat with a pattern like feathers all over it. "Philadelphia?" she said. "Why, yes, I am."
"Then could I ask you a favor?"
I stopped several feet away and frowned down at my left wrist. Never mind that I don't own a watch. Even without looking, I could sense how she went on guard. The man must have sensed it too, because he said, "Nothing too difficult, I promise!"
They were announcing my train now. "The delayed 10:10," the loudspeaker called it. It's always "the delayed" this or that. People started moving toward Gate E, the older couples hauling their wheeled bags behind them like big, meek pets on leashes. If the woman in the feather coat said anything, I missed it. Next I heard, the man was talking. "My daughter's flying out this afternoon for a junior semester abroad," he was saying. "Leaving from Philadelphia; the airline offers a bargain rate if you leave from Philadelphia. So I put her on a train this morning, stopped for groceries afterward, and came home to find my wife in a state. It seems our daughter'd forgotten her passport. She'd telephoned from the station in Philly; didn't know what to do next."
The woman clucked sympathetically. I'd have kept quiet myself. Waited to find out where the guy was heading with this.
"So I told her she should stay put. Stay right there in the station, I said, and I would get somebody here to carry up her passport."
A likely story! Why didn't he go himself, if this was such an emergency?
"Why don't you go yourself?" the woman asked him.
"I can't leave my wife alone that long. She's in a wheelchair: Parkinson's."
This seemed like a pretty flimsy excuse, if you want my honest opinion. Also, it exceeded what I would consider the normal quota for misfortunes. Not only a lamebrain daughter, but a wife with a major disease! I let my eyes wander toward the two of them. The woman was gazing up into the man's face, pooching her mouth out thoughtfully. The man was holding a packet. He must have pulled it from his car coat: not a manila envelope, which would have been the logical choice, but one of those padded mailers the size of a paperback book. Aha! Padded! So you couldn't feel the contents! And from where I stood, it looked to be stapled shut besides. Watch yourself, lady, I said silently.
As if she'd heard me, she told the man, "I hope this isn't some kind of contraband." Except she pronounced it "counterband," which made me think she must not be a schoolmarm, after all.
"No, no!" the man told her. He gave a huff of a laugh. "No, I can assure you it's not counterband."
Was he repeating her mistake on purpose? I couldn't tell. Or maybe the word really was "counterband." Meanwhile, the loudspeaker came to life again. The delayed 10:10 was now boarding. Train wheels squealed below me. "I'll do it," the woman decided.
"Oh, wonderful! That's wonderful! Thanks!" the man told her, and he handed her the packet. She was already rising. Instead of a suitcase, she had one of those tote things that could have been just a large purse, and she fitted the strap over her shoulder and lined up the packet with the book she'd been reading. "So let's see," the man was saying. "You've got light-colored hair, you're wearing a brown print coat. . . . I'll call the pay phone where my daughter's waiting and let her know who to watch for. She'll be standing at Information when you get there. Esther Brimm, her name is — a redhead. You can't miss that hair of hers. Wearing jeans and a blue-jean jacket. Ask if she's Esther Brimm."
He followed the woman through the double doors and down the stairs, although he wasn't supposed to. I was close behind. The cold felt good after the packed waiting room. "And you are?" the man was asking.
Affected way of putting it. They arrived on the platform and stopped short, so that I just about ran over them. The woman said, "I'm Sophia — " and then something like "Maiden" that I couldn't exactly hear. The train was in place but rumbling, and passengers were clip-clopping by. "In case we miss connections, though . . . ," she said, raising her voice.
In case they missed connections, he should put his name and phone number on the mailer. Any fool would know that much. But he seemed to have his mind elsewhere. He said, "Um . . . now, do you live in Baltimore? I mean, are you coming back to Baltimore, or is Philly your end destination?"
I almost laughed aloud at that. So! Already he'd forgotten he was grateful; begun to question his angel of mercy's reliability. But she didn't take offense. She said, "Oh, I'm a long-time Baltimorean. This is just an overnight visit to my mother. I do it every weekend: take the ten-ten Patriot Saturday morning and come back sometime Sunday."
"Well, then!" he said. "Well. I certainly do appreciate this."
"It's no trouble at all," she said, and she smiled and turned to board.
I had been hoping to sit next to her. I was planning to start a conversation — mention I'd overheard what the man had asked of her and then suggest the two of us check the contents of his packet. But the car was nearly full, and she settled down beside a lady in a fur hat. The closest I could manage was across the aisle to her left and one row back, next to a black kid wearing earphones. Only view I had was a schoolmarm's netted yellow bun and a curve of cheek.
Well, anyhow, why was I making this out to be such a big deal? Just bored, I guess. I shucked my jacket off and sat forward to peer in my seat-back pocket. A wrinkly McDonald's bag, a napkin stained with ketchup, a newspaper section folded to the crossword puzzle. The puzzle was only half done, but I didn't have a pen on me. I looked over at the black kid. He probably didn't have a pen, either, and anyhow he was deep in his music — long brown fingers tapping time on his knees.
Then just beyond him, out the window, I chanced to notice the passport man talking on the phone. Talking on the phone? Down here beside the tracks? Sure enough: one of those little cell phones you all the time see obnoxious businessmen showing off in public. I leaned closer to the window. Something here was weird, I thought. Maybe he smuggled drugs, or worked for the CIA. Maybe he was a terrorist. I wished I knew how to read lips. But already he was closing his phone, slipping it into his pocket, turning to go back upstairs. And our train was sliding out of the station.
I looked again at the woman. At the packet, to be specific.
It was resting on top of her book, which sat in her feather-print lap. She would be the type who stayed properly buttoned into her coat, however long the trip. Where the mailer was folded over, staples ran straight across in a nearly unbroken line. But staples were no problem. She could pry them up with, say, a nail file or a dime, and slip them out undetectably, and replace them when she was finished. Do it, I told her in my head. She was gazing past her seatmate, out the right-hand window. I couldn't even see her cheek now; just her bun.
Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent, I used to break into houses and read people's private mail. Also photo albums. I had a real thing about photo albums. The other kids who broke in along with me, they'd be hunting car keys and cigarettes and booze. They'd be tearing through closets and cabinets all around me, while I sat on the sofa poring over somebody's wedding pictures. And even when I took stuff, it was always personal stuff. This little snow globe once from a nightstand in a girl's bedroom. Another time, a brass egg that stood on scaly claw feet and opened to show a snapshot of an old-fashioned baby inside. I'm not proud of this. I'd sooner confess to jewel theft than to pocketing six letters tied up with satin ribbon, which is what I did when we jimmied the lock at the Empreys' place one night. But there you are. What can I say.
So when this Sophia woman let the packet stay un-touched — didn't prod it, didn't shake it, didn't tease apart the merest corner of the flap — I felt something like, oh, almost envy. A huge wave of envy. I started wishing I could be like that. Man, I'd have been tearing into that packet with my bare teeth, if I'd had the chance.
The conductor came and went, and the row houses slipping by turned into factory buildings and then to matted woods and a sheet of gray water, but I was barely conscious of anything beyond Sophia's packet. I saw how quietly her hands rested on the brown paper; she was not a fidgeter. Smooth, oval nails, pale pink, and plump white fingers like a woman's in a religious painting. Her book was turned the wrong way for me to read the title, but I knew it was something worthwhile and educational. Oh, these people who prepare ahead! Who think to bring actual books, instead of dashing into a newsstand at the last minute for a Sports Illustrated or — worse yet — making do with a crossword puzzle that someone else has started!
It bothered me more than I liked to admit that the passport man had avoided me.
We were getting close to Wilmington, and the lady in the fur hat started collecting her things. After she left, I planned to change seats. I would wait for Sophia to shift over to the window, and then I'd sit down next to her. "Morning," I would say. "Interesting packet you've got there."
"I see you're carrying some kind of packet."
"Mind if I inquire what's in that packet?"
Or whatever. Something would come to me. But when the train stopped and the lady stood up, Sophia just turned her knees to one side to let her out. She stayed seated where she was, on the aisle, so I didn't see any natural-seeming way to make my move.
We left Wilmington behind. We traveled past miles of pipeline and smokestacks, some of them belching flames. I could tell now that it was rap music the kid beside me was listening to. He had the volume raised so high that I could hear it winding out of his earphones — that chanting and insisting sound like the voices you hear in your dreams.
"Philll-adelphia!" the conductor called.
Of course Sophia got ready too soon. We were barely in sight of the skyline — bluish buildings shining in the pale winter sunlight, Liberty Towers scalloping their way up and up and up — but she was already rising to wait in the aisle. The exit lay to the rear, and so she had to face me. I could see the pad of flesh that was developing under her chin. She leaned against her seat and teetered gently with the swaying of the car. Critics are unanimous! the back of her book said. The mailer was almost hidden between the book and her cushiony bosom.
I put on my jacket, but I didn't stand up yet. I waited till the train had come to a stop and she had passed me. Then I swung out into the aisle lickety-split, cutting in front of a fat guy with a briefcase. I followed Sophia so closely, I could smell the dusty smell of her coat. It was velvet, or something like velvet. Velvet always smells dusty, even when it's fresh from the cleaners.
There was the usual scuffle with that automatic door that likes to squash the passengers — Press the button, dummies! — and the usual milling and nudging in the vestibule, and then we stepped out into a rush of other people. It was obvious that Sophia knew where she was going. She didn't so much as glance around her but walked fast, coming down hard on her heels. Her heels were the short, chunky kind, but they made her as tall as I was. I had noticed that while we were standing on the train. Now she was slightly taller, because we'd started up the stairs and she was a step above me.
Even once we'd reached the waiting room, she didn't look around. Thirtieth Street Station is so enormous and echoing and high-ceilinged — a jolt after cozy Baltimore — that most people pause to take stock a moment, but not Sophia. She just went clicking along, with me a few yards to the rear.
At the Information island, only one person stood waiting. I spotted her from far across those acres of marble flooring: a girl in a denim jacket and jeans, with a billow of crinkly, electric red hair. It fanned straight out and stopped just above her shoulders. It was amazing hair. I was awestruck. Sophia, though, didn't let on she had noticed her. She was walking more slowly now, downright sedately, placing her toes at a slight angle outward, the way women often do when they want to look composed and genteel. Actually, she was starting to get on my nerves. Didn't that bun of hers just sum her up, I thought — the net that bound it in and the perfect, doughnut shape and the way it sat so low on her head, so matronly and drab! And Esther Brimm, meanwhile, stood burning like a candle on her stick-thin, blue-denim legs.
When we reached the island I veered right, toward a display of schedules on the counter. I heard Sophia's heels stop in front of Esther. "Esther Brimm?" she asked.
Husky, throaty voice, the kind I like.
"Your father asked me to bring you something. . . ."
I took a schedule from the rack and turned my face casually in their direction. Not till Esther said, "Right; my passport," did Sophia slip the mailer from behind her book and hold it out.
"Thanks a million," Esther said, accepting it, and Sophia said, "My pleasure. Have a good trip." Then she turned away and clicked toward the Twenty-ninth Street exit.
Just like that, I forgot her. Now I was focused on Esther. Open it! I told her. Instead she picked up the army duffel lying at her feet and moved off toward the phones. I meandered after her, studying my schedule. I pretended I was hunting a train to Princeton.
The phones were the unprivate kind just out in the middle of everything, standing cheek to jowl. When Esther lifted a receiver off its hook, I was right there beside her, lifting a receiver of my own. I was so near I could have touched her duffel bag with the toe of my sneaker. I heard every word she said. "Dad?" she said.
I clamped my phone to my ear and held the schedule up between us so I could watch her. This close, she was less attractive. She had that fragile, sore-looking skin you often find on redheads. "Yes," she was saying, "it's here." And then, "Sure!
I guess so. I mean, it's still stapled shut and all. Huh? Well, hang on."
She put her receiver down and started yanking at the mailer's top flap. When the staples tore loose, rat-a-tat, she pulled the edges apart and peered inside — practically stuck her little freckled nose inside. Then she picked up the phone again. "Yup," she said. "Good as new."
So I never got a chance to see for myself. It could have been anything: loose diamonds, crack cocaine . . . But somehow I didn't think so. The phone call was what convinced me. She'd have had to be a criminal genius to fake that careless tone of voice, the easy offhandedness of a person who knows for a fact that she's her parents' pride and joy. "Well, listen," she was saying. "Tell Mom I'll call again from the airport, okay?" And she made a kissing sound and hung up. When she slung her duffel over her shoulder and started toward one of the gates, I didn't even watch her go.
The drill for visiting my daughter was, I'd arrive about ten a.m. and take her on an outing. Nothing fancy. Maybe a trip to the drug store, or walking her little dog in the park. Then we'd grab a bite someplace, and I'd return her and leave. This happened exactly once a month — the last Saturday of the month. Her mother's idea. To hear her mother tell it, Husband No. 2 was Superdad; but I had to stay in the picture to give Opal a sense of whatchamacallit. Connection.
But due to one thing and another — my car acting up, my alarm not going off — I was late as hell that day. It was close to noon, I figure, before I even left the station, and I didn't want to spring for a cab after paying for a train ticket. Instead I more or less ran all the way to the apartment they lived in one of those posh old buildings just off Rittenhouse Square, and by the time I pressed the buzzer, I was looking even scruffier than my usual self. I could tell as much from Natalie's expression, the minute she opened the door. She let her eyes sort of drift up and down me, and, "Barnaby," she said flatly. Opal's little dog was dancing around my ankles — a dachshund, very quivery and high-strung.
"Yo. Natalie," I said. I started swatting at my clothes to settle them a bit. Natalie, of course, was Miss Good Grooming. She wore a slim gray skirt-and-sweater set, and her hair was all of a piece — smooth, shiny brown — dipping in and then out again before it touched her shoulders. Oh, she had been a beauty for as long as I had known her; except now that I recalled, there'd always been something too placid about her. I should have picked it up from her dimples, which made a little dent in each cheek whether or not she was smiling. They gave her a look of self-satisfaction. What I'd thought when we first met was, how could she not be self-satisfied? And her vague, dreamy slowness used to seem sexy. Now it just made me impatient. I said, "Is Opal ready to go?" and Natalie took a full minute, I swear, to consider every aspect of the question. Then: "Opal is in her room," she said finally. "Crying her eyes out."
"She thought you'd stood her up."
"Well, I know I'm a little bit late — " I said.
She lifted an arm and contemplated the tiny watch face on the inner surface of her wrist.
"Things just seemed to conspire against me," I said. "Can I see her?"
After she'd thought that over awhile, she turned and floated off, which I took to mean yes.
I made my own way to Opal's bedroom, down a long hall lined with Oriental rugs. I waded through the dachshund and knocked on her door. "Opal?" I called. "You in there?"
No answer. I turned the knob and poked my head in.
You'd never guess this room belonged to a nine-year-old. The bedspread was appliquéd with ducklings, and the only posters were nursery-rhyme posters. By rights it should have been a baby's room, or a toddler's.
The bed was where I looked first, because that's where I figured she would be if she was crying. But she was in the white rocker by the window. And she wasn't crying, either. She was glaring at me reproachfully from underneath her eyebrows.
"Ope!" I said, all hearty.
Opal's chin stayed buried inside her collar.
I knew I shouldn't think this, but my daughter had never struck me as very appealing. She had all her life been a few pounds overweight, with a dish-shaped face and colorless hair and a soft, pink, half-open mouth, the upper lip short enough to expose her top front teeth. I used to call her "Bunnikins" till Natalie asked me not to — and why would she have asked, if she herself hadn't noticed Opal's close resemblance to a rabbit? It didn't help that Natalie dressed her in the kind of clothes you see in Dick and Jane books — fussy and pastel, the smocked bodices bunching up on her chest and the puffed sleeves cutting into her arms. Me, I would have chosen something less constricting. But who was I to say? I hadn't been much of a father.
I did want the best for her, though. I would never intentionally hurt her. I walked over to where she was sitting and squatted down in front of her. "Opal-dopal," I said. "Sweetheart."
"Call off your dog. He's eating my wallet."
She started to smile but held it back. Her mother's two dimples deepened in her cheeks. The dog really was nibbling at my wallet. George Farnsworth, his name was; heaven knows why. "George Farnsworth," I said sternly, "if you're short of cash, just ask straight out for a loan, okay?"
Now I heard a definite chuckle. I took heart. "Hey, Ope, I'm sorry I'm late," I said. "First I had car trouble, see — "
"You always have car trouble."
"Then my alarm clock didn't go off — "
"It always doesn't go off."
"Well. Not always," I told her. "Then once I got to Penn Station, you'll never guess what happened. It was like a secret-agent movie. Guy is walking up to people, pulling something out of his coat. " 'Ma'am,' " — I made my voice sound menacing and mysterious — " " 'would you please take this package to Philadelphia for me?' "
Opal didn't speak, but I could tell she was listening. She watched me with her pinkish-gray eyes, the lashes slightly damp.
" 'Take it to my daughter in Philly; all it is is her passport,' he said, and I thought to myself, Ha! I just bet it's her passport! So when this one woman said she would do it, I followed her at the other end of the trip."
"You followed her?"
"I wanted to see what would happen. So I followed her to her rendezvous with the quote-unquote daughter, and then I hung around the phones while the daughter placed a call to — "
"You hung around the phones?"
I was beginning to flounder. This story didn't have what you'd call a snappy ending. I said, "Yes, and then — um — "
"You were only dawdling in the station all this time! It's not enough you don't look after your car right and you forget to set your alarm; then you dawdle in the station like you don't care when you see me!"
It was uncanny, how much she sounded like her mother. Her mother in the old days, that is — the miserable last days of our marriage. I said, "Now, hon. Now wait a sec, hon."
Which was also from those days, word for word. Some kind of reflex, I guess.
"You promised you'd come at ten," she said, "and instead you were just . . . goofing around with a bunch of secret agents! You totally lost track of where you were supposed to be!"
"In the first place," I said, "I take excellent care of my car, Opal. I treat it like a blood relative. It's not my fault if my car is older than I am. And I did not forget to set my alarm. I don't know why it didn't go off; sometimes it just doesn't, okay? I don't know why. And I honestly thought you'd like hearing about those people I was so-called goofing around with. I thought, Man, I wish Opal could see this, and I followed them expressly so I could tell you about it later over a burger and french fries. Wouldn't that be great? A burger and fries at Little Pete's, Ope, while I tell you my big story."
It wasn't working, though. Opal's eyes only got pinker, and for once she had her mouth tightly shut.
"Look at George Farnsworth! He wants to go," I said.
In fact, George Farnsworth had lost interest and was lying beside the rocker with his nose on his paws. But I said, "First we'll take George for a walk in the Square, and then we'll head over to — "
"It sounds to me," Natalie said, "as if Opal prefers to stay in."
She was standing in the doorway. Damn Oriental rugs had muffled her steps.
"Am I right, Opal?" she asked. "Would you rather tell him goodbye?"
"Goodbye?" I said. "I just got here! I just came all this way!"
"It's your decision, Opal."
Opal looked down at her lap. After a long pause, she murmured something.
"We couldn't hear you," Natalie said.
"Goodbye," Opal told her lap.
But I knew she didn't mean it. All she wanted was a little coaxing. I said, "Hey now, Ope . . ."
"Could I speak with you a minute?" Natalie asked me.
I sighed and got to my feet. Opal stayed where she was, but I caught her hidden glimmer of a glance as I turned to follow Natalie down the hall. I knew I could have persuaded her if I'd been given more time.
We didn't stop in the living room. We went on through to the kitchen, at the other end of the apartment. I guess Natalie figured my jeans might soil her precious upholstery. I had never seen the kitchen before, and I spent a moment looking around old-fashioned tilework, towering cabinets before it sank in on me what Natalie was saying.
"I've been thinking," she was saying. "Maybe it would be better if you didn't come anymore."
This should have been okay with me. It's not as if I enjoyed these visits. But you know how it is when somebody all at once announces you can't do something. I said, "What! Just because one Saturday I happen to run a little behind?"
Her eyes seemed to be resting slightly to the left of my left shoulder. Her face was as untroubled as a statue's.
"I'm traveling from a whole other city, for God's sake!" I told her. "A whole entirely other state! No way can you expect me to arrive here on the dot!"
"It's funny," she said reflectively. "I used to believe it was very important for Opal to keep in touch with you. But now
I wonder if it might be doing her more harm than good. All those Saturdays you've come late, or left early, or canceled altogether — "
"It was only the once or twice or three times or so that I canceled," I said.
"And even when you do show up, I imagine it's started to dawn on her how you live."
"How I live! I live just fine!"
"A rented room," she mused, "an unskilled job, a bunch of shiftless friends. No goals and no ambitions; still not finished college at the age of thirty."
"Twenty-nine," I corrected her. The one charge I could argue with.
"Thirty in three weeks," she said.
There was a sudden silence, like when the Muzak stops in a shopping mall and you haven't even been hearing it but all at once you're aware of its absence. And just then I noticed, on the windowsill behind her, our old china cookie jar. I hadn't thought of that cookie jar in years! It was domed on top and painted with bars like a birdcage, and it looked so dowdy and homely, against the diamond-shaped panes. It made me lose my train of thought. The next thing I knew, Natalie was gliding out of the kitchen, and I had no choice but to follow her.
Though, in the foyer, I did say, "Well." And then, in the hall outside, I turned and said, "Well, we'll see about this!"
The door made almost no sound when she closed it.
My train home was completely filled, and stone cold to boot. Some problem with the heating system. I sat next to a Spanish-type guy who must have started his New Year's partying a tad bit early. His head kept nodding forward, and he was breathing fumes that were practically flammable. Across the aisle, this very young couple was trying to soothe a baby. The husband said, "Maybe he's hungry," and the wife said, "I just fed him." The husband said, "Maybe he's wet." I don't know why they made me so sad.
After that, it seemed all around me I saw families. A toddler peeked over his seat back, and his mother gave him a hug and pulled him down again. A father and a little girl walked toward me from the club car, the little girl holding a paper cup extremely carefully in both hands. The foreigner and I were the only ones on our own, it seemed.
The father glanced at us as he came close at the foreigner's head bobbing and reeling, and me with my jacket collar flipped up and a wad of cottony white stuff poking out of a tear in one sleeve, and then he glanced away. It made me think of the passport man, refusing to meet my eyes. And that made me think of the woman in the feather coat. Sophia. So honorable, Sophia had been; so principled. So well behaved even when she thought nobody was looking.
Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don't they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits?
Isn't it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people? Couldn't that be the explanation?
1. "I am a man you can trust." Barnaby begins and ends the novel with this statement. How has Barnaby's understanding of this characterization of himself changed over the course of this story?
2. "Just because we were related didn't mean we were any good at understanding each other, " says Barnaby after yet another frustrating conversation with his mother. Communication problems abound within the families depicted in this novel. Discuss the nature and source of these problems. Why do we often have so much trouble talking to the people we love?
3. Even as adults, many of us, like Barnaby, still view our families through the eyes of a child. How does this blind us? How do we heal the old wounds? Can we?
4. During a family dinner for his birthday, Barnaby asks himself, "How come I always got the feeling that somebody was missing from our family table?" What do you think Barnaby was missing? And why is his mother so insistent upon including his childhood friend, Len Parrish, in the festivities?
5. How does Barnaby's understanding of and relationship with his daughter change over the course of this story? How does it mirror his relationship with his own parents?
6. Barnaby's daughter is upset upon meeting some of his clients, and Barnaby is criticized for this. Do you think he was wrong to bring Opal with him on his rounds?
7. While Barnaby tells us a great deal about his marriage to Natalie, we learn little about her views of things. How do you think Natalie would describe their relationship, and how would it differ from Barnaby's account?
8. "And I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they'd married the right person. 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." Discuss the meaning of this summary of marriage according to Barnaby. Do you agree or disagree?
9. Barnaby's brief career as a juvenile delinquent involves snooping in other people's personal effects and "collecting" their personal mementos. What do you think motivated him to do this? Have you ever felt the compulsion to look in other people's private things? Why or why not?
10. Have you ever encountered a stranger on a train who intrigued you as Sophia intrigued Barnaby? Have you ever done anything about it as Barnaby does?
11. Barnaby seems surrounded by smug and self-satisfied people--his mother, his ex-wife, his brother, to name a few--who he never seems to measure up to. Barnaby feels much less comfortable in his own skin. Do you think this is a trait only he possesses?
12. What motivates Barnaby to re-pay his parents, and why does his mother try to give the money back?
13. This novel explores the bittersweet struggles of older people to maintain their dignity and independence in the face of advancing age. What do you think about the fact that Barnaby knows more about the lives of his clients than many of their own families do? What does this novel suggest about the treatment and place of elderly people in our society?
14. Barnaby's clients deal with the indignities and problems associated with aging--e. g., failing health, isolation--in many different ways. How do their approaches vary, and what accounts for this?
15. Do you think Sophia was actually Barnaby's guardian angel? Why or why not?
16. Why is Barnaby able to overlook attributes in Sophia that infuriate him in other people for so long? How does his attitude change and why?
17. Which character(s) did you find to be the most compelling and why?
18. What is the significance of the title of this novel?
19. Why did your group choose to read this particular work? How does this novel compare with other works your group has read?
Posted August 1, 2007
I really enjoyed this until I came to the last two pages. It leaves you up in the air, just chopped off from all the loose ends. What became of all the relationships? What about the money? It needs about 50 more pages.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 9, 2003
This was the second Anne Tyler book i have read, and I loved it. I usually don't like school assigned authors, but Anne Tyler is amazing! I really think she has evolved as a writer since A Tin Can Tree which was the first book i have read by her.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 1, 2003
I liked the feeling of "Patchwork Planet", it most defintely has a distinct flow to it. I had never read anything by Anne Tyler before this and I think that I would like to try her other works. An intersting read that makes you think. The ending was a disappointment though.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2002
This was, without a doubt, fantastic. The first book I have read by this author, I was stunned by how real and true the characters were. It desereves 4 1/2 stars. Its one for everyone. Great!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 2, 2002
Posted December 14, 2001
Even though I find Anne Tyler's characters 'interesting' most of the time I don't like them very much. I LOVED Barnaby!!! He's a lovable looser who finds his niche in the world in spite of family pressures and the fact that hardly anyone trusts him except the old people he serves. What I liked about the book in particular is the descriptions of growing old, what it's like, how difficult it is, how sad, and how fine when it's done with dignity. And I loved the way Barnaby goes from lovable looser to real manhood. Wonderful read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 15, 2001
A Patchwork Planet is no different than life itself. Ups and downs, colors and shapes, certainties and uncertainties are intertwined beautifully by Anne Tyler, the pieces slowly moving together to form a very interesting picture. One minute you love Barnaby Gaitlin, the next you are not so sure. Just like any genuine person you know. The end leaves you with the desire to follow and speculate more about these complex characters. This novel would be great as a movie.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 12, 2001
I have read a lot of Anne Tyler, and have learned to stick with her-it always takes a chapter or two to get the whole picture. True for this book as well. At first I had a hard time finding sympathy for her main character, but of course I was won over in the end. As usual, she keeps the reader hanging just a bit at the end, wanting to know more. Loved it anyway.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 13, 2000
A Patchwork PLanet has all the makings of a wonderful story, but meanders aimlessly from one 'client' to the next in search of a interesting plot. I had to force myself to finish it. Much like Mrs. Glynn's memory, this book would best be forgotten.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 16, 2010
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Posted May 25, 2012
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Posted May 8, 2011
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Posted March 21, 2011
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