A train pulls out of Baltimore's Penn station. Boarding passengers
include Barnaby, the scruffily dressed, estranged
scion of the "old" Baltimore Gaitlins, and a prim,
hair-netted young woman. Idly snooping,
Barnaby sees this woman accept a mysterious
package from a frantic stranger, who claims it is a
passport forgotten by his daughter, awaiting its
delivery in Philadelphia. On his way, reluctantly,
to a rendezvous with his ex-wife and 9-year-old
daughter, Barnaby spends the train ride futilely
willing the prim woman to open the package,
astonished at her ability to be "so well behaved
even when she thought nobody was looking."
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
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.
David Morse's reading in a calm, even tone reflects the unruffled attitude of the central character in this story. After getting into trouble early in his young adult life, and subsequently paying for his crime, Barney Gaitlin has achieved a level of fulfillment working with senior citizens. Unfortunately, he is perceived by most of his family and friends as a failure, not having attained a college education nor a high-paying position in a high-profile profession. In a relationship with Sophia Maynard, he tries to find a greater level of stability, partly to create a more suitable atmosphere in which to establish closer ties with his young daughter. Tyler's (The Ladder of Years, Audio Reviews, LJ 8/96) characters are real people recognizable in one's own circle of acquaintances. The bonds and tensions arising among family members are readily understandable. A definite recommendation for academic and public library fiction collections.--Catherine Swenson, Norwich Univ., VT
The Seattle Times
A perfect gem...Tyler's books get wiser, funnier, and richer as they go.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
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.
New York Times Book Review
Anne Tyler writes like an angel....One of those books that readers close at the end and recognize the truth they contain.
Tyler is our fictional double agent. She embarks with a seemingly humdrum normality of story, characters and setting (Baltimore, invariably, and a white-bread, white, and cheerfully non-gothic Baltimore) and packs tiny bombs in her luggage.
From the Publisher
"Anne Tyler writes like an angel....One of those books that readers close at the end and recognize the truth they contain."
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."
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me. Or at least, I'm guessing it is. Why else would they hand me their house keys before they leave for vacation? Why else would they depend on me to clear their attics for them, heave their air conditioners into their windows every spring, lug their excess furniture to their basements? "Mind your step, young fellow; that's Hepplewhite," Mrs. Rodney says, and then she goes into her kitchen to brew a pot of tea. I could get up to anything in that basement. I could unlock the outside door so as to slip back in overnight and rummage through all she owns--her Hepplewhite desk and her Japanese lacquer jewelry box and the six potbellied drawers of her dining-room buffet. Not that I would. But she doesn't know that. She just assumes it. She takes it for granted that I'm a good person.
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.
From the Hardcover edition.