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.
There’s a tradition in the family that the Gaitlin men receive apparations of angels at important moments in their lives. When Barnaby meets a pleasant, attractive woman a few years older than himself who may or may not be his angel, things begin to change for him … but not always in the ways Barnaby, or those around him, might expect.
I love this novel because it has all Anne Tyler’s signature perceptiveness and attention to detail, used to illuminate the life of a character I found truly lovable, for whom I was cheering without restraint throughout the book. For anyone who wants to read a thoughtful, sometimes funny, and ultimately life-affirming novel, I can recommend most of Anne Tyler’s works, but none more highly than A Patchwork Planet, a novel that has truly stood the test of time for me.