Plausibility is in the details. With Anne Tyler, it seems like the details are always nailed down. And then they add up.
The details aren’t the same from character to character. She looks and finds different elements to paint and then those elements pop. She looks unflinchingly for the odd bit of texture or color or mannerism. By the time “A Patchwork Planet” is in full swing, there’s a whole ensemble of sharply drawn people and they step on and off stage with credibility and weight. It’s the details. The “fragile, sore-looking” skin. The dress form-or is it a twin form?-in the attic. The “creak, pause, creak” of a rocking chair upstairs. The “little white, pipe-cleaner shins.” There are little Tyler gifts throughout, enriching the entire experience.
“A Patchwork Planet” sports a dark edge. Ex-juvenile delinquent Barnaby Gaitlin isn’t exactly likable. He has a spotty track record and he doesn’t apply himself much to anything, other than his own worries and dislikes about life, down to certain words he doesn’t care to hear. All the Gaitlins have a story about an angel and Barnaby is looking for his own–unaware apparently that so many around him are pulling for him already. He’s boastful at odd times and tells “geeky, unnecessary lies.” He’s divorced when we meet him and we later learn that he woke up one day and realized he was married to a “station wagon mommy.” He has an eye for clothes, challenges the notion that a spot of comfort and privilege had been reserved for him in life and goes about his business working for “Rent-A-Back,” a service company that helps old and infirm people with their lifting and moving projects. He knows his life is “muddy” and he’s constantly filtering what people say and how they act, studying the things that annoy him.
The plot has a mildly Patricia Highsmith quality to it. You are following somebody around who is just a tad creepy and you’re enjoying it. You feel like you’re walking down the street with him and you don’t really want to follow him but it might be interesting to see what kind of ugly knots of twisted metal will come from the next train wreck. Barnaby is mostly good but down-and-out sort who lives in a basement apartment and struggles against the expectations others have for him. He’s easily deluded by his own curious and over-active imagination. But–get this–he knows he deludes himself and even scolds himself for pursuing his delusions. He seems to have willed himself into his position in life through sheer force of his own personal arguments. This is the way he wants it and it’s not that bad.
And then one particular pursuit pays off and the book is off and running, as he connects with Sophia, whom he has met through a very unusual set of circumstances. The woman represents hope and a chance to start clean. Or does it? Once Barnaby connects with the equally quirky Sophia–who frequently wears her hair in a bun that Barnaby finds fascinating, at least at first–you know this can’t last. But what’s going to give?
“Couldn’t people change?” Barnaby asks at one point. “Did they have to be who they were from cradle to grave?” He’s thinking about others but asking about himself, too. And that’s the book in a nutshell–can Barnaby escape his reputation and move up in the eyes of others? And, does he really want to? A wonderful series of mix-ups and miscommunications leads to a juicy, fine finish that’s ripe for multiple interpretations.
Tyler puts together a fine ensemble cast of characters-each of the elderly clients of Barnaby’s and his extended family and his closest co-worker, Martine.
Anne Tyler said in one interview that her goal is to create such vivid characters that readers will feel like they have “stepped inside another person’s life and come to feel related to that person.”