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[whitespace] book cover Hands of Time: Time passes inexorably for everyone in Anne Tyler's 'A Patchwork Planet.'

A Patchwork Planet
By Anne Tyler
Alfred A. Knopf; 285 pages; $24 cloth

Anne Tyler understands the mystery of aging in her new novel

By Jonelle Bonta

ALL OF ANNE TYLER'S novels are set in the Baltimore area. None is punctuated by tragedies or disasters, and the action in each book moves with the ebb and flow of life, not the rush of melodrama. Each is full of gentle surprises, as quirky and individualistic as her characters. Tyler's main subject is deceptively simple: How screwball can a person be and still live a relatively normal life?

Her newest novel, A Patchwork Planet, tells the story of Barnaby Gaitlin, the younger son of an old-money family (they even have their own foundation) who got in trouble as a teenager for breaking into homes, not to steal but to read people's mail and study family photo albums.

Barnaby is divorced and has a 9-year-old daughter, Opal, but his ex-wife says that it would be better for Opal if Barnaby stopped his visits. He lives in a basement apartment and works for Rent-A-Back, a labor service for older people who can no longer do the heavy work necessary to keep their homes.

Young, good-looking and making his way his own way, Barnaby is reasonably happy. But he faces the indifference of his father and the sharp disapproval of his mother while dealing with the pain of seeing his clients deteriorate and die and deciding what to do about Sophia, the very respectable lady with whom he becomes involved.

One of Tyler's major strengths has always been her uncanny ability to depict children, describing their simplistic reactions to life's complex situations with unsentimental understanding. In A Patchwork Planet, a similar rich talent is revealed: an empathy with the elderly.

Barnaby's faithfulness to a job many people would find depressing makes us like him and admire his values. The physical weakening, the desperate effort to live alone, the putting up a brave front while clinging to the last shreds of independence--Barnaby knows and understands his clients and elicits a poignant start of recognition from anyone who has ever watched their parents or grandparents age.

Why do we care about this affable, ambitionless character? Because Barnaby has no ulterior motives. Sitting in a park one cold day after a visit with Opal, Barnaby compares his life to those of his clients and comes to terms with the fact that he squandered his marriage:

    At Rent-A-Back, I knew couples who'd been married almost forever. ... They'd be tending each other's illnesses, filling in each other's faulty memories, dealing with the money troubles or the daughter's suicide or the grandson's drug addiction. 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. Or the only person, might be more to the point. I wish someone had told me that earlier. I'd have hung on them; I swear I would.

LIKE MIES VAN DER ROHE'S God, Tyler is in her details. Putting together an artificial Christmas tree for a client, Barnaby muses, "I'd never quite adjusted to how soft the needles were. Each time I plunged my hand in among them, I felt disappointed, almost--expecting to be prickled and then failing to have it happen." As the tree is decorated, he notices the old handmade ornaments, including a snowflake "pancake-sized, slightly crumpled, snipped from gift wrap so old that the Santas were smoking cigarettes."

Barnaby's relationships with his clients do what 30 years of family and married life failed to do: fast-forward his emotional development. "In those photo albums I used to rifle, people were so consistent," he thinks. "They tended to assume the same poses for every shot, the same expressions. ... What I wanted to know was, couldn't people change? Did they have to settle for just being who they were forever, from cradle to grave? ... Seated at that table ... I felt I had changed."

Tyler's life has been punctuated by precisely the kind of disasters she spares her characters. Since her last novel, she has survived a mastectomy and the death of her husband (to whom this book is dedicated), trials which could destroy a person or, ultimately, strengthen her. But the reader doesn't have to know anything about Tyler's personal life to recognize A Patchwork Planet as a milestone.

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From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of Metro.

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