Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet

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A Patchwork Planet Summary

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Published in 1998, A Patchwork Planet is a novel by best-selling American author and literary critic, Anne Tyler. Acclaimed for her richly developed characters, attention to realistic detail, and for finding the extraordinary beneath the ordinary of everyday life, Tyler has received numerous awards including a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Breathing Lessons. In A Patchwork Planet, thirty-year-old Barnaby, the black sheep of his wealthy family, works as a handyman for elderly and infirm clients. As he becomes a part of their lives, spreading kindness and compassion to the people he helps, Barnaby matures emotionally, gaining self-acceptance. A Patchwork Planet was listed as a New York Times Notable Book.

Kind-hearted Barnaby Gaitlin is the first-person narrator of A Patchwork Planet. It is the start of a new year, and Barnaby has just celebrated his thirtieth birthday alone in his rented basement apartment. Barnaby’s wealthy “old Baltimore” family never lets him forget the shame he brought to the family name. As a teenager, Barnaby and his friends burglarized homes in their affluent neighborhoods. Unlike his friends, Barnaby wasn’t interested in stealing expensive items. Instead, Barnaby enjoyed peering into the victims’ lives: he would examine family photos, read mail, and steal family mementos. When Barnaby was caught, his family paid off the neighbors and sent Barnaby to the Renascence School, a private reform school for the “gifted young tester of limits.”

The Gaitlin family believes their wealth stems from the intervention of an angel that walked into Great Grandfather Gaitlin’s woodworking shop and suggested that he build ladies’ dress forms. He took the angel’s advice and created the Gaitlin Faithful Feminine Twinform, to great success. Great Grandfather also started a charitable foundation that Barnaby’s father and older brother, Jeff, work for. Family legend holds that “all the Gaitlins have angels…they’re required.” Barnaby’s father believes an angel saved him from a gunman. Jeff maintains that an angel advised him to get out of the stock market (which he did) just before Black Monday. Barnaby is still waiting for a visitation from his angel.

Barnaby works at Rent-a-Back, a service dreamed up by the owner, Mrs. Dibble, after her elderly mother had a mishap turning her mattress. Finding her mother pinned to the floor by her mattress (alive but grumpy), Mrs. Dibble tells her that she should have hired a man for the job. So, Rent-a-Back was born. Barnaby has worked at the service for eleven years, doing simple, odd jobs for folks that they can no longer do for themselves, like putting up Christmas trees, moving furniture, reaching high shelves, grocery shopping, and taking out their trash. Rent-a-Back helps older and infirm people stay in their homes and maintain their independence.

Barnaby enjoys his work. He respects and truly cares about the people he meets and they—unlike Barnaby’s family—appreciate Barnaby. Barnaby’s mother, however, believes that his job at Rent-a-Back has no future and that Barnaby is only working there “out of spite” to the family. Barnaby’s older customers don’t know his criminal past, and they like and trust him. They invite Barnaby into their lives, sharing their memories and fears, and Barnaby helps ease their loneliness. Barnaby appreciates people who can “keep their good humor and gracious manners even though their joints are aching nonstop and they can’t climb out of their baths without help.”

One of Barnaby’s favorite clients, Mrs. Alford, is making a patchwork quilt of the planet earth. Barnaby notes that the quilt is “makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment,” yet it possesses an offbeat, unexpected beauty. Mrs. Alford later dies of a heart attack.

Shrewd, sharp-eyed, and feisty, Martine is Barnaby’s co-worker. A “tiny little cat-faced girl with sallow skin and boxy black hair,” Martine partners with Barnaby on many of their jobs, and later they split ownership of a truck.

One day, Barnaby takes the train to visit his nine-year-old daughter, Opal. Barnaby was briefly married to the girl-next-door, Natalie, but they divorced after Opal’s birth. Natalie married a wealthy Philadelphia lawyer and no longer wants Barnaby to visit or be a part of Opal’s life. Barnaby disagrees. On the train, Barnaby meets Sophia Maynard, a blonde, chunky, thirty-six-year-old banker who tells him to follow his intuition. Barnaby thinks that perhaps Sophia is his angel. He and Sophia become friends and begin dating. Even Barnaby’s family approves of Sophia. Barnaby initially finds his relationship with Sophia comfortable but begins to have doubts. He muses, “Angels leave a better impression…if they don’t hang around making chitchat and letting you get to know them.”

One of Barnaby’s customers, Mrs. Glynn, who is Sophia’s aunt, accuses Barnaby of stealing money she’d been keeping in her flour bin. Barnaby didn’t steal the money. Martine rallies all of Barnaby’s other elderly customers to support him. Mrs. Glynn eventually apologizes to Barnaby when she remembers that she changed the hiding spot for her money, but in the meantime, Sophia had put some of her own money in the flour bin to cover for Barnaby, whom she believed really did steal it. Barnaby is hurt that Sophia doubts his honesty. Sophia begins to hold the fact that her money is trapped in Mrs. Glynn’s house against Barnaby. He realizes that his relationship with Sophia isn’t what he desires.

Barnaby and Martine go to Mrs. Glynn’s house to retrieve Sophia’s money. Sophia refuses to take it, but Barnaby claims it is a package for Natalie which he asks Sophia to deliver. When Natalie fails to show up, Sophia will open the package looking for Natalie’s phone number and find the money and a note from Barnaby.

A Patchwork Planet ends with Barnaby and Martine finishing their cleanup of Mrs. Alford’s home. Barnaby has a revelation: he tells Martine, “Haply I think on thee.” Barnaby then pictures Sophia opening his note which reads “You never did realize. I am a man you can trust.”