A Patchwork Planet


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In this New York Times Notable Book, Tyler tells the story of a lovable loser who's trying to get his life in order.

Barnaby Gaitlin has been in trouble ever since adolescence. He had this habit of breaking into other people's houses. It wasn't the big loot he was after, like his teenage cohorts. It was just that he liked to read other people's mail, pore over their family photo albums, and appropriate a few of their precious mementos.

But for eleven years now, he's been working steadily for Rent-a-Back, renting his back to old folks and shut-ins who can't move their own porch furniture or bring the Christmas tree down from the attic. At last, his life seems to be on an even keel.

Still, the Gaitlins (of "old" Baltimore) cannot forget the price they paid for buying off Barnaby's former victims. And his ex-wife would just as soon he didn't show up ever to visit their little girl, Opal. Even the nice, steady woman (his guardian angel?) who seems to have designs on him doesn't fully trust him, it develops, when the chips are down, and it looks as though his world may fall apart again.

There is no one like Anne Tyler, with her sharp, funny, tender perceptions about how human beings navigate on a puzzling planet, and she keeps us enthralled from start to finish in this delicious new novel.


"Anne Tyler writes like an angel....One of those books that readers close at the end and recognize the truth they contain."
--USA Today


"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."
--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."
--Carol Shields, The New York Times Book Review

"Possesses a tenderness reminscent 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."
--Chicago Tribune

"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."
--Entertainment Weekly
"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 involve 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."
--Chattanooga Press

"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."
--Hartford Courant

"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."


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.

Q & A

Q: Your protagonist in this novel, Barnaby Gaitlin, has been described as an average, ordinary man. Is this how you would describe him?

AT:I think Barnaby is average and ordinary only to the extent that most people are average and ordinary--that is, not very, if you look carefully enough.

Q: Barnaby is, among other things, a man struggling to cast off the weight of his past. How successful is he, and indeed any of us, in doing so?

AT: I do believe that Barnaby is at least largely successful in getting out from under the weight of his past--that's where the plot derives its movement.

Q: At the close of this novel, we are left wondering just exactly who is Barnaby's angel. How would you answer this question?

AT: Barnaby has not just one but many angels--the network of people he lives among who see him for the good man he is and wish him well and do what they can to ease his life.

Q: You delightfully skewer class pretensions in this novel, most notably in the form of Barnaby's mother, Margot, and explore the cost and meaning of class mobility in America. Why is this such a central theme in your work?

AT: I've always enjoyed studying the small clues that indicate a particular class level. And I am interested in the fact that class is very much a factor in America, even though it's not supposed to be.

Q: You have been credited by reviewer James Bowman in the Wall Street Journal with creating fictional businesses with great potential, Rent-a-Back being the most recent and best example. What was the inspiration for Rent-a-Back?

AT: Rent-a-Back's inspiration was pure wishful thinking. I would love to have such a service available to me.

Q: Many reviewers have commented upon your powerful, realistic, and humane portrayal of elderly characters in this novel as well as the relative lack of sustained exploration of old age in contemporary American fiction. Do you agree with this assessment of the state of the field?

AT:There are a number of good novels about old people--I don't see a lack.

Q: Why did you choose to create such a wide array of elderly characters and make the often painful process of aging a central focus of this novel?

AT: Time, in general, has always been a central obsession of mine--what it does to people, how it can constitute a plot all on its own. So naturally, I am interested in old age.

Q: If you had to choose one of the family units in this novel as your own, which would you choose and why?

AT: For my own family, I would always choose the makeshift, surrogate family formed by various characters unrelated by blood.

Q: Barnaby is a character who lives very much in his own head. Was it difficult to bring this loner to such vivid life on the page?

AT: I had trouble at first getting Barnaby to "open up" to me--he was as thorny and difficult with me as he was with his family, and we had a sort of sparring, tussling relationship until I grew more familiar with him.

Q: Which character(s) presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?

AT: Sophia was a challenge, because I had less sympathy with her than with the other characters, and therefore I had more trouble presenting her fairly.

Q: How did you come to choose writing as your life's work, and what sustains you in this often solitary vocation?

AT: I didn't really choose to write; I more or less fell into it. It's true that it's a solitary occupation, but you would be surprised at how much companionship a group of imaginary characters can offer once you get to know them.

Q: How does the writing process work for you? Has it changed over the years?

AT: I never think about the actual process of writing. I suppose I have a superstition about examining it too closely.

Q: What advice would you give struggling writers trying to get published?

AT: I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them--without a thought about publication--and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.

Q: How do your own experiences impact (or not) upon your work in terms of subject matter and themes and so forth?

AT: None of my own experiences ever finds its way into my work. However, the stages of my life--motherhood, middle age, etc.--often influence my subject matter.

Q: What themes do you find yourself consistently addressing in your work?

AT: I don't think of my work in terms of themes. I'm just trying to tell a story.

Q: Because you are an author with a substantial body of work, reviewers and readers alike cannot resist choosing their favorite book. Do you have a favorite among your own works?

AT: My favorite of my books is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, becomes it comes closest to the concept I had when I started writing it.

Q: As a writer who is frequently cited as an important influence on your peers, what writers andor works have most influenced you?

AT: A major influence on my writing was reading Eudora Welty's short stories at age fourteen. It wasn't till then that I realized that the kind of people I saw all around me could be fit subjects for literature.

Q: What books would you recommend reading groups add to their lists?

AT: Books that cause fiercely passionate arguments, pro and con, seem to me the best candidates for reading groups. For instance, I would recommend Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. No one is ever neutral about that book.

Q: What would you most like your readers to get out of this novel?

AT: My fondest hope for any of my novels is that readers will feel, after finishing it, that for awhile they have actually stepped inside another person's life and come to feel related to that person.

Q: What is next for you? Are you working on a new project?

AT: I am in the very beginning stages of a novel whose central character is sixty-five years old.

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