I just finished my first Anne Tyler book, A Patchwork Planet. Where to start! This is a beautiful, piercing book. Tyler manages to use first-person narration to deliver an convincing, emotionally honest book that never descends into sentimentality or cliche. The narrator, Barnaby, is the black sheep of his family, a former juvenile delinquent working a dead-end job. So many people in his life want him not only to improve, but to live up to their particular standard of worthiness, that he’s constantly tempted to act up and justify their bad opinion of him out of spite.
Back when Natalie and I were still married…I happened to be knocked down by a car after an evening class. Ended up spending several hours in the emergency room while they checked me out, but all I had was a few scrapes and bruises.
When I finally got home, about midnight, there was Natalie in her bathrobe, walking the baby….”It’s nothing to me anymore if you choose to stay out carousing. But how about your daughter, wondering all this time where you are? Didn’t you at least give any thought to your daughter?”…I said, “No, I didn’t, since you ask. I was having too good a time….”
… “If you think I’m such a villain, just watch: I’ll act worse than you ever dreamed of,” I said. I said it during my teens. I said it toward the end of my marriage.
None of the characters in this book are stereotypes–not even the snobby mother, the hostile ex-wife, or the comical old ladies. Barnaby has a piercing ability to penetrate the outer appearance of many of the characters; yet he remains a mystery to himself. He often laments that “[s]o many things, it seemed, my body went ahead and did without me;” but he doesn’t use that to excuse his actions. He doesn’t descend into self-flagellation either, most of the time; instead, he just observes his thoughts and actions with the honesty and puzzlement of an outsider. He’s truly mystified about why he does the things he does, and why his life has turned out the way it has:
Oh, what makes some people more virtuous than others? Is it something they know from birth? Don’t they ever feel that zingy, thrilling urge to smash the world to bits?
Isn’t it possible, maybe, that good people are just luckier people?
Because Barnaby is so ignorant about his own character, Tyler deftly uses his thoughts and actions to show us that he’s a much more honorable and kind person than he thinks he is. He’ll often spit out a one-word response that makes him sound callous or tuned out, but his thoughts will show the reader the depth of his emotions and perceptions, even when he doesn’t see them himself. It’s telling that he never even physically describes himself, so that when, towards the end, a woman tells him how handsome he is, it comes as a total surprise.
So many other things make this book worthwhile: the spare but evocative description, the unique cadence of Barnaby’s speech and narration, and most of all, the tender and realistic portrayal of the old people Barnaby does odd jobs for at “Rent-a-Back.” Each of these characters is fully formed, not just a type, and the way Barnaby understands and relates to them brings out an unexpected side of his character. The descriptions of old age are among the best but saddest parts of the book. But don’t worry, it has a happy ending! I don’t like books with sad endings. Here’s a link where you can read the first chapter, which is what got me hooked.