A Patchwork Planet

A Patchwork Planet

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780788720208
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
Publication date: 12/17/2001
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 2.75(h) x 6.30(d)

About the Author

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis in 1941 but grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated at nineteen from Duke University, and went on to do graduate work in Russian studies at Columbia University. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is also the author of If Morning Ever Comes, The Tin Can Tree, A Slipping-Down Life, The Clock Winder, Celestial Navigation, Searching for Caleb, Earthly Possessions, Morgan's Passing, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe, and Ladder of Years. Tyler is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore.


Baltimore, Maryland

Date of Birth:

October 25, 1941

Place of Birth:

Minneapolis, Minnesota


B.A., Duke University, 1961

Read an Excerpt

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 placebut 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.

Reading Group Guide

1.         "I am a man you can trust." Barnaby begins and ends the novel with this statement. How has Barnaby's understanding of this characterization of himself changed over the course of this story?

2.         "Just because we were related didn't mean we were any good at understanding each other, " says Barnaby after yet another frustrating conversation with his mother. Communication problems abound within the families depicted in this novel. Discuss the nature and source of these problems. Why do we often have so much trouble talking to the people we love?

3.         Even as adults, many of us, like Barnaby, still view our families through the eyes of a child. How does this blind us? How do we heal the old wounds? Can we?

4.         During a family dinner for his birthday, Barnaby asks himself, "How come I always got the feeling that somebody was missing from our family table?" What do you think Barnaby was missing? And why is his mother so insistent upon including his childhood friend, Len Parrish, in the festivities?

5.         How does Barnaby's understanding of and relationship with his daughter change over the course of this story? How does it mirror his relationship with his own parents?

6.         Barnaby's daughter is upset upon meeting some of his clients, and Barnaby is criticized for this. Do you think he was wrong to bring Opal with him on his rounds?

7.         While Barnaby tells us a great deal about his marriage to Natalie, we learn little about her views of things. How do you think Natalie would describe their relationship, and how would it differ from Barnaby's account?

8.         "And I was beginning to suspect that it made no difference whether they'd married the right person. Finally, you're just with who you're with. You've signed on with her, put in half a century with her, grown to know her as well as you know yourself or even better, and she's become the right person." Discuss the meaning of this summary of marriage according to Barnaby. Do you agree or disagree?

9.         Barnaby's brief career as a juvenile delinquent involves snooping in other people's personal effects and "collecting" their personal mementos. What do you think motivated him to do this? Have you ever felt the compulsion to look in other people's private things? Why or why not?

10.         Have you ever encountered a stranger on a train who intrigued you as Sophia intrigued Barnaby? Have you ever done anything about it as Barnaby does?

11.         Barnaby seems surrounded by smug and self-satisfied people--his mother, his ex-wife, his brother, to name a few--who he never seems to measure up to. Barnaby feels much less comfortable in his own skin. Do you think this is a trait only he possesses?

12.         What motivates Barnaby to re-pay his parents, and why does his mother try to give the money back?

13.          This novel explores the bittersweet struggles of older people to maintain their dignity and independence in the face of advancing age. What do you think about the fact that Barnaby knows more about the lives of his clients than many of their own families do? What does this novel suggest about the treatment and place of elderly people in our society?

14.         Barnaby's clients deal with the indignities and problems associated with aging--e. g., failing health, isolation--in many different ways. How do their approaches vary, and what accounts for this?

15.         Do you think Sophia was actually Barnaby's guardian angel? Why or why not?

16.         Why is Barnaby able to overlook attributes in Sophia that infuriate him in other people for so long? How does his attitude change and why?

17.         Which character(s) did you find to be the most compelling and why?

18.         What is the significance of the title of this novel?

19.         Why did your group choose to read this particular work? How does this novel compare with other works your group has read?

Customer Reviews

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Patchwork Planet 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
bastet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A wonderful book about a man who thinks he's following an angel until it turns out he's met the woman of his dreams. He also redeems himself as a man who can help others. One of Tyler's better efforts.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not one of her usual plots, so a bit refreshing, but not as funny as some of her other books.
joyleppin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Anne Tyler's books always strike a chord with me.
turtlesleap on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At 30, Barnaby Gaitlin has an ex-wife, a daughter with whom he has no meaningful relatinship, a juvenile criminal record, a family he can't stand to be around and a job. The job is "manual labor," providing a strong back to help the elderly and infirm of Baltimore, where he lives. Barnaby is a good guy, notwithstanding his past and his consistent refusal to conform to other's expectations of him. As the book unfolds, a new romance appears to be opening up for him--one that the reader will quickly suspect is not a good choice for him. Sub-plots abound as Barnaby's clients grow older, grow ill and die with depressing frequency and the reader shares his attachement to them. This is sweet book, easy to read and simple but leaving behind it an echo of complex issues that demand to be considered.
MeganRulloda on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book kept my interest. It's odd though, because it's not like anything really pulled me to this book, but the flow of it just kept me reading and reading and reading.This is the story of Barnaby, an outcast in his family, and his search for identity and contentment. I'm not sure I liked the ending, but it left me thinking about it a few days later, which is unusual for me.
hammockqueen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful characters. Kept my interest. Really love Tyler's writing. Barnaby, the black sheep, works for 'rent a back' and helps the elderly on an hourly basis. Lots of insights into older peoples' needs and a non-pretentious mans work in his simple world.
jayne_charles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first Anne Tyler I attempted, and I was impressed with her writing style, characterisation and occasional humour. The plot seemed to take a back seat, but I didn't mind too much as long as the writing was interesting. I particularly liked the lengthy description of 'old folks', though I suspect old folks may not.
xuesheng on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barnaby Gaitlan works for an organization called Rent-a-Back. He works with old people all day doing errands around their homes. His job is interesting because when he was young he broke into people's homes to read their personal mail, look through their photo albums, and take a personal item. Now he is invited in to do their work and learn about their lives. The people he works with trust him. However, when a problem arises, will his new girlfriend trust him too? An enjoying read!
whirled on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I must say I felt Anne Tyler stretched the credibility of her protagonist a tad too far this time around. Barnaby Gaitlin's past as a petty criminal who breaks into people's houses in order to look through their old photo albums was more silly than quirky. Aside from that, he was a typical Tyler hero, flawed but likable, trying to find his place within his family and the world at large. And, the disastrous family dinner towards the end is another of her masterful set pieces. I've read quite a few of her novels now and I think it's fair to say Tyler's stories are somewhat formulaic, which is, oddly, part of their appeal. Reading Anne Tyler is as comforting as hot chocolate on a wintry day - guaranteed to brighten your mood.
isabelx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Then a hand arrived on my arm, so light it took a moment to register, and I turned and found Sophia smiling into my eyes. It was the most serene and radiant smile, the most seraphic smile. "Goodbye, Barnaby," she said, and she dropped her hand and walked away.I never did explain her presence to Natalie. I honestly don't know what I would have said.The story of Barnaby Gaitlin, the black sheep son of a rich Baltimore family, who works for a company called Rent-a-back, which does the jobs that its elderly clients can't manage for themselves, no matter how small. I loved the descriptions of Barnaby's clients, such as "Over her forearm she carried a Yorkshire terrier, neatly folded like a waiter's napkin", and "Dirt was her personal enemy. Let her catch sigh of a cobweb and she would not rest until she had killed it dead", and I think that every city could do with having a Rent-a-back.
marialondon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What is it about Barnaby Gaitlin? He's almost 30 (oh, that dreaded birthday!), lives in a run-down basement, is divorced, with a young daughter who he seldom sees, works at a menial job & generally struggles to survive. This at least is the description of Barnaby's life, if you look at it from a detached, criticizing point of view. He's the ultimate "loser" in a society that measures people through their wealth, beauty, image. Barnaby comes from a rich family, but is a former juvenile delinquent. He's not particulary handsome & he couldn't care less about his image. Still, in a world that would measure people in different ways, he would be considered a wonderful man: through his work he helps those most in need (elderly clients in the company "Rent-a-back") & is a kind, thoughtful, gentle man, but hopelessly insecure & maybe misdirected.Along comes Sophia, a school-marmish sort of woman, who, as is mentioned in the book, "each night scrubs her face, brushes her teeth & climbs- alone- into her four-poster-bed". Barnaby thinks Sophia is his guardian-angel (a tradition in his family) & forms a relationship with her, striving to be as good as she is. What he doesn't realise, until the end, is that Sophia's goodness is only skin-deep, while his own character & potential is more truthful & honest by far.What stays with me after closing the book is first, the whole theme of goodness & the ability to give to others, which is explored beautifully, & second, Anne Tyler's thoughts about old-age & elderly people...very chilling, very true. Those chapters broke my heart but I thought they were true to life.
mhgatti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As sure as they're going to based in Baltimore, Tyler's novels are also going to concern one's place in (and obligation to) their family. Planet deals not only with a college dropout's relationship with his upwardly mobile family, but his work family - the elderly Baltimoreans he does odd jobs for - as well.The backbone of the novel is trust - mainly, whether all the work that goes into building trust is worth it. That's kind of serious sounding, but the story is actually pretty light. Maybe a little too light. The lack of a more substantial story prevented this from being a great book, but Tyler's realistic dialogue (from both young and elderly characters) and offbeat sense of humor make it worth reading.
Black_samvara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Barnaby Gaitlin is divorced, an ex-delinquent, the black sheep of his neurotic family and the owner of a fabulous car he doesn't appreciate. He works for Rent-a-Back doing odd jobs for elderly clients and his wry narration and baffled response to the world around him is very enjoyable. I also appreciated his complete inability to not stuff things up, the man has an auto-destruct response to things going well and the scene where he almost gooses his brother's wife had me reading in horrified anticipation.
magst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My all time favorite book! The characters pull you in and don't let go until the very end. If you are looking for something to immerse yourself in this summer, then look no further.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this until I came to the last two pages. It leaves you up in the air, just chopped off from all the loose ends. What became of all the relationships? What about the money? It needs about 50 more pages.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the second Anne Tyler book i have read, and I loved it. I usually don't like school assigned authors, but Anne Tyler is amazing! I really think she has evolved as a writer since A Tin Can Tree which was the first book i have read by her.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked the feeling of "Patchwork Planet", it most defintely has a distinct flow to it. I had never read anything by Anne Tyler before this and I think that I would like to try her other works. An intersting read that makes you think. The ending was a disappointment though.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was soooo good, it kept me so interested. i usually can't finish books, but for some reason this book just makes you want to keep going!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was, without a doubt, fantastic. The first book I have read by this author, I was stunned by how real and true the characters were. It desereves 4 1/2 stars. Its one for everyone. Great!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Even though I find Anne Tyler's characters 'interesting' most of the time I don't like them very much. I LOVED Barnaby!!! He's a lovable looser who finds his niche in the world in spite of family pressures and the fact that hardly anyone trusts him except the old people he serves. What I liked about the book in particular is the descriptions of growing old, what it's like, how difficult it is, how sad, and how fine when it's done with dignity. And I loved the way Barnaby goes from lovable looser to real manhood. Wonderful read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A Patchwork Planet is no different than life itself. Ups and downs, colors and shapes, certainties and uncertainties are intertwined beautifully by Anne Tyler, the pieces slowly moving together to form a very interesting picture. One minute you love Barnaby Gaitlin, the next you are not so sure. Just like any genuine person you know. The end leaves you with the desire to follow and speculate more about these complex characters. This novel would be great as a movie.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read a lot of Anne Tyler, and have learned to stick with her-it always takes a chapter or two to get the whole picture. True for this book as well. At first I had a hard time finding sympathy for her main character, but of course I was won over in the end. As usual, she keeps the reader hanging just a bit at the end, wanting to know more. Loved it anyway.