This novel tells the story of a young man, Barnaby Gaitlin, who’s very much the black sheep of a successful family. The Gaitlins have made a fortune in business and run a charitable foundation, while Barnaby’s older brother Jeff is a model son, with a perfect family and career. Faced with the realisation that his parents disapprove of him, Barnaby has rebelled and completely dropped out of this money and status-driven existence. With an adolescence of petty crime and reform school as well as a divorce behind him, he works in a low-paid manual labour job that his parents see as beneath a member of such a renowned family. He lives in a basement, has no money and dresses like a tramp, causing his mother especially to nag him to change his ways and be more like his brother.
We soon learn that all the Gaitlin men throughout the generations have, at some time or other, encountered an ‘angel’, a woman who suddenly appeared to them for a moment and conveyed a supernatural message that changed the course of their lives. The novel opens with a chance meeting at a railway station that leads Barnaby to wonder whether he too has finally met his angel, the woman who will transform his directionless life…
This is a very funny novel that creates humour and drama out of the mundane events of one person’s life. It is written in the first person and I loved the voice of Barnaby – he is very observant and perceptive about those around him: the family he gets frustrated with, and his colleagues and clients at Rent-a-Back, the company he works for, carrying out odd-jobs and DIY for people who can’t manage it themselves. I also liked the clear and precise writing style, which, although fairly unadorned and unshowy, somehow immerses the reader immediately into Barnaby’s world. Barnaby is an engaging character. He sees himself as being pretty much a worthless person, as do certain neighbours and members of his family, but the reader can see clearly that he’s actually kind-hearted and very sympathetic to his clients, although he denies any praise with lines such as ‘None of my customers had the least inkling of my true nature’. His family see his job as pointless, without any future, but it’s clear that Barnaby makes a huge difference in the lives of the often lonely and elderly people he works for.
This novel has a large cast of characters, including Barnaby’s ex-wife and daughter, his family, colleagues and old school friends. For this reason, it seems rather meandering at times but it still kept me interested throughout. His eccentric clients and awkward family get-togethers are all conveyed wonderfully. I liked the way the book portrayed relationships developing slowly, and showed that people can be attracted to others without realising it at first. The reader can enjoy being one step ahead of Barnaby, seeing what isn’t obvious to him, and predicting what’s going to happen to him next. But A Patchwork Planet also shows how life can be complicated and relationships ambiguous, and it certainly doesn’t wrap everything up neatly. I think one of the main ideas expressed is that all our connections in life, whoever we interact with, contribute to giving life meaning, and it’s not only one central romantic relationship that has significance. It’s quite a cheering book and I think would be ideal to read curled up on a dull, rainy afternoon.