A train pulls out of Baltimore's Penn station. Boarding passengers include Barnaby, the scruffily dressed, estranged scion of the "old" Baltimore Gaitlins, and a prim, hair-netted young woman. Idly snooping, Barnaby sees this woman accept a mysterious package from a frantic stranger, who claims it is a passport forgotten by his daughter, awaiting its delivery in Philadelphia. On his way, reluctantly, to a rendezvous with his ex-wife and 9-year-old daughter, Barnaby spends the train ride futilely willing the prim woman to open the package, astonished at her ability to be "so well behaved even when she thought nobody was looking."
Fans will recognize, in this opening cocktail of Baltimore, frayed family ties, and the fateful encounter of strangers, the simultaneously mundane and magical world of Anne Tyler. They may find, however, that in "A Patchwork Planet" the mundane overwhelms the magical. Tyler's 14th novel is narrated with wry bafflement by 29-year-old Barnaby, whose life has gone off the rails since he was caught robbing neighborhood homes as an adolescent. A true Tyler protagonist, Barnaby seeks out the detritus of human relationships rather than looting stereos and jewelry: "Back in the days when I was a juvenile delinquent, I used to break into houses and read people's private mail. Also photo albums ... I sat on the sofa poring over somebody's wedding pictures." To the despair of his distant father, his social-climbing mother, his chilly ex-wife and his prematurely patriarchal brother, Barnaby now works for a company called Rent-a-Back, doing odd jobs for elderly clients.
He also waits, without much hope, for a visitation from the Gaitlin angel. It was such an angel -- a "big, tall woman with golden hair coiled in a braid on top of her head" -- who first suggested to Barnaby's great-grandfather the invention of the wooden dress-form that made the Gaitlins rich. We know that Barnaby will find his angel, though perhaps not where he first looks; we also know that his search will lead him through family crises and reconciliations. Indeed, the theme and action of "A Patchwork Planet," as in all of Tyler's novels, can be summed up in Barnaby's reflections on how "these family messes" are temporarily resolved: "The most unforgivable things got ... oh, not forgiven. Never forgiven. But swept beneath the rug, at least; brushed temporarily to one side; buried in a shallow grave."
In "A Patchwork Planet," however, the shallow burials and exhumations of the familiar Tyler types -- the passive, lovable loser man, the provocatively undernourished girl, the less-than-loving mother -- seem more mechanical than epiphanic. The characters are exasperatingly, rather than charmingly, quirky: As Barnaby misses one more appointment or confesses to having once attempted to torch his parents' house, the reader may share his family's annoyance. Tyler's best novels, such as "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," hit their targets -- her readers' hearts -- with a gentle but satisfying jolt. They expose the damage done by familial negotiations, but insist on the possibility of consolation. "A Patchwork Planet" diverts, but its characters' wounds don't go very deep, and their recoveries fail to inspire.