Book review. Book group Oxfam Muswell Hill
Book review. For their July meeting the Book Group at the Oxfam Muswell Hill Bookshop read A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler.
This is a book about trust, growing old and the relevance of guardian angels.
It begins with the main character informing the reader that he is a ‘man you can trust’. He then spends the first half of the book demonstrating how and why his family choose not to trust him.
This was Anne Tyler’s fourteenth novel, first published in 1998. During our discussion she was dubbed ‘the Jane Austen of contemporary American novelists’ because her writing style is character driven and focuses down on the fine detail and delicately nuanced choices of everyday life.
The novel is narrated in the first person by Barnaby Gaitlin, an observant and empathic person who is busy making sense of the world. He has a tendency to describe women’s clothing and appearance in detail. We thought this was unlikely for a young man, but demonstrated one of the problems that an author has when writing in the first person – how to convey rounded characters without resorting to authorial intervention. This is a short novel, less than 290 pages and the major events don’t occur until after the halfway mark – by then you are so familiar with the lives of a range of characters that you are affected by their small triumphs and inevitable losses.
Barnaby is a young man with a good heart who has a reputation he cannot shift of having been a wild teenager. His family, especially his mother, have thrown money at keeping him on the straight and narrow and expect him to be beholden to them for their actions. Only his grandparents see the good in him. Barnaby chooses not to work for the family business – a philanthropic foundation, but as a handyman for the aptly named Rent-a-Back – a company that provides assistance to the elderly and infirm. (We wondered why such companies did not exist in reality.)
Descriptions of family meals are a device that Tyler excels in and uses to draw out the tensions in relationships. The Patchwork Planet is no exception, there are two dinner scenes – a birthday meal reveals that family attitudes to Barnaby are based on money and the preservation of the family’s reputation; later, a gloriously dysfunctional ‘pot-luck’ Thanksgiving dinner, comprised mainly of desserts and heated arguments, finishes with the comment, ‘After that we had a fairly normal evening, but that was just because all of us were exhausted.’
We considered that the pivot of the novel was not Barnaby being accused of stealing money from Grace Glynn, his girlfriend’s aunt, as that was predictable, but the point at which Sophia, his girlfriend, reveals that she has used her savings to replace the ‘stolen’ money. Either way, it is the point at which Barnaby stops believing in the efficacy of guardian angels and we, as readers, realise that sometimes decisions are neither right nor wrong, but just human.
We had all experienced that ‘aha’ moment when we discovered the relevance of the title embodied in Mrs Alford’s Planet Earth quilt, ‘makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together…likely to fall to pieces at any moment.’
A Patchwork Planet is a rewarding read (the first chapter alone is a tour-de-force) with a structure that goes full circle and finishes back at Penn Station with a man you can trust.