I first read this book several years ago (before I started blogging about everything I read here at Compulsive Overreader), and it remains my favourite of Anne Tyler’s many novels, though I don’t think it’s one of her best-known or most highly acclaimed. After being a little disappointed by her new book, Noah’s Compass, I decided to reread this one to see if it retains its appeal for me, and within a page or two the answer came quickly and clearly: it does; it always will.
The allure, I’m sure, is in the first-person narrator of this story, because I am always (in literature and in life) such a sucker for troubled young men with good intentions. The main character in A Patchwork Planet is Barnaby Gaitlin, a young man just turning thirty. The son of a wealthy and prominent family, Barnaby lives alone in a one-room basement apartment and works for an odd job company, helping senior citizens lift and carry and do chores they’re no longer able to do alone. Barnaby is clearly marked out as the black sheep of the venerable Gaitlin family: as a teenager he was in trouble with the law; as a youna man he married early, then divorced almost as quickly, leaving him now with a nine-year-old dayghter he sees only once a month. Nobody has much faith in Barnaby except the elderly people he works for, who rely on his kindness and dependability, but far worse is that he has little faith in himself.
I’ve been an Anne Tyler fan for a long, long time, and I’ve read most of her seventeen novels. Some I’ve enjoyed more than others, but what I always appreciate is her incredible perceptiveness, how she unearths the tiny and apparently insignificant details that bring a character into sharp focus.
Noah’s Compass is the story of Liam Pennywell, a sixty-one year old man who has just lost his job and is not sure whether he is ready for retirement. Liam is a lonely, solitary man who thinks he is doing fine on his own. His first wife is dead; his second divorced him years ago; he has three daughters, a sister, and an elderly father, but is close to none of them.
On the first night in a new, scaled-down apartment, Liam is attacked by a would-be burgler and winds up in hospital with a head wound. At first, it bothers him terribly that he cannot remember any of the details of the assault, even though everyone assures him this is quite normal for a head injury. His troubled quest to regain the lost memory leads him into an unlikely relationship with a younger woman. This, in turn, leads to further complications which force Liam to realize that he has not just literally lost the memory of his head injury but that he has also, metaphorically, lost the memories of much of his life — he has never been, as he tells someone late in the novel, fully present in his own life.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: if Jasper Fforde started publishing his grocery lists or his to-do lists, I would buy them and read them and enjoy them. He’s just that engaging and funny and creative as a writer, and after reading The Eyre Affair and all the rest of the Thursday Next books, and the Nursery Crime series, I am willing to trust him as a writer and go along on any ride he wants to take me on.
That said, Shades of Grey is one heck of a weird book.
It may be one of the weirdest books I’ve read. It’s weird even for Jasper Fforde, and that is saying a lot. At the beginning I found it more difficult to read than his other books, and I gather from the Acknowledgements at the end that he found it more challenging than usual to write as well.
It was difficult, not because the writing is not as clever and fun and engrossing as Fforde’s writing always is, but because he’s created an alternate world to set the story in (as he always does) and this particular world is more complex and convoluted than the alternate-future of the Thursday Next books or the nursery rhyme character world of the Nursery Crime novels.
For my last book of Lent this year, I chose this short book written by a father and daughter (actually, the book is mainly written by dad Kevin, with short chapters and reflections by his teenaged daughter Hannah) about one American family’s experiment to do more to help others. The Salwens were an upper-class, upwardly-mobile family with a lavish Atlanta home when Hannah’s social conscience spurred them to think about doing more than just writing cheques to charities and occasionally volunteering at the food bank. They made the bold decision to sell their house, buy one that cost about half as much, and donate the difference to a project that would help feed the hungry in Africa.
This is such a “Wow!” idea it’s hard not to be captivated by it. The book describes the messier reality behind that engaging soundbite. First of all, the Salwens chose to do this just as the American economy, particularly the real-estate market, was tanking. So while they were quickly able to buy and move into a smaller house, they had to wait almost two years to unload the bigger house, and realized much less from the sale than they had anticipated (though still, obviously, a healthy chunk of change, enough to buy my house a few times over).