A Patchwork Planet

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler explores many of the themes that have preoccupied her for three decades, such as the tensions between husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend; the conflict between the need for security and the urge to break free; the pressures of family tradition and social expectations; and the desire to be loved and trusted. The new novel will remind readers of The Accidental Tourist (1985), in which the protagonist faces loneliness and despair; of Breathing Lessons (1988), in which the major characters contemplate the aging process; and of The Clock Winder (1972), which shows how a woman who is rejected by her own family becomes an indispensable member of another.

The title A Patchwork Planet refers to a quilt that an elderly woman has been piecing together shortly before her death. Made up of assorted scraps of cloth, stitched together unevenly in no discernible pattern, and obviously fragile, it is a pessimistic definition of “Planet Earth.” However, because it was finished in haste, as a gift to the old lady’s daughter, and because the daughter understands and weeps over it, the quilt is also a symbol of love and of hope. Barnaby Gaitlin, the young protagonist of the novel, understands about the quilt. Throughout most of the book, he believes others’ assessment of him as a man whose life has no direction and no solid foundation. By the time he sees the quilt, however, he is well on the way to viewing the world and his own place in it very differently.

The novel is organized chronologically. It takes place over the space of a calendar year, minus one week, for it begins on New Year’s Eve and ends at Christmas. It is told in the first person by the protagonist, Barnaby Gaitlin, the black sheep in a family that has been prominent in Baltimore for many generations. The Gaitlins are unusual in that they see their history in terms of a series of visits from angels, who always have practical ideas about making the family fortune or keeping it safe. Barnaby does not understand why no angel has come to him. Since an escapade in his youth, which ended with his being arrested for housebreaking, his family has viewed him as a lost cause. At twenty-nine, he has never finished college. For ten years, he has held a low-paying job as an employee of Virginia Dibble’s Rent-a-Back, which supplies help for those people, most of them elderly, who can no longer go shopping, run errands, or do small chores around their homes.

As far as their attitude toward Barnaby is concerned, the characters fall into two very different groups. One consists of those who know Barnaby through Rent-a-Back, such as Mrs. Dibble, his employer; Martine Pasko, his fellow employee; and the clients to whom he is assigned. Barnaby does not seem to understand that Mrs. Dibble’s calling him so often means that she values him highly and that there are a great many clients who ask specifically for him, nor does he notice how much Martine enjoys being with him. He does not have any idea how important he is to all these people. Instead, he looks at his job and himself through the eyes of those who value only money and social standing. Because he has neither, his ex-wife Natalie, now remarried and living expensively in Philadelphia, does not want Barnaby to spend time with their nine- year-old daughter, Opal. His mother Margot Gaitlin cannot let any family gathering go by without mentioning Barnaby’s menial job, his slim prospects for the future, and his having cost the family $8,700, the amount they paid to reimburse neighbors for his thefts. His well-to-do brother Jeff looks down on him, and so does his old friend Len Parrish, whom Margot adores, evidently unaware of his complicity in the crimes for which Barnaby took the blame.

At the beginning of the novel, Barnaby admits being unsure about himself, wondering whether he can indeed be trusted. However, he still has faith in the family angels. On New Year’s Eve, he is almost certain that one has appeared in the Baltimore train station. The beautiful young woman who so kindly agrees to do a favor for a stranger must be an angel, he thinks, perhaps the one intended for him. On his next trip to Philadelphia, Barnaby realizes that he was mistaken. Sophia Maynard is just an ordinary bank employee, making her weekly visit to her mother. However, he does see some special qualities in her. Perhaps because of her name, more likely because of her composure, he...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)