Review 1490: A Patchwork Planet

Anne Tyler’s books have been around for years, and some of them have been very popular, but for some reason, I never read any until just a couple of years ago. Now, I have read a few and wonder what I was waiting for. Her Baltimore settings and her quirky characters make for an enjoyable time reading.

In A Patchwork Planet, Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see his daughter when he becomes fascinated by an incident. A man goes up and down the platform looking for someone who is going to Philadelphia, but he does not ask scruffy-looking Barnaby. He finally finds a middle-aged woman who agrees to take a package containing her passport to the man’s daughter in the Philadelphia station.

This event awakens in Barnaby both curiosity and a sort of protectiveness toward the woman. He watches her during the trip to see if she opens up the package to make sure it is a passport and not something more sinister or dangerous. She does not. He follows her to see her hand it over.

Barnaby is on the surface a tough, lower-class guy, but we find as we get to know him that he is still rebelling, at 30, against his wealthy, status-conscious parents. He is not ambitious, but he is kind-hearted and loves his job for Rent-a-Back, where he does chores and runs errands for mostly elderly clients. But he is a disappointment to his parents, especially to his mother, who can’t forgive him for incidents in his juvenile delinquent past. This past involved breaking into houses and stealing, but while his friends took liquor and money, Barnaby looked at family albums and stole curios. Unfortunately, he was the only one caught.

Barnaby takes another train trip with the woman, Sophia, and engages her in conversation, during which his friendliness wins her over. She contacts Rent-a-Back to have him help out her aunt. Soon, they begin dating.

Under Sophia’s influence, Barnaby begins to make strides toward growing up: to be more reliable at work, to make sure his daughter gets attention, to pay back his parents. But a crisis comes when Sophia’s aunt accuses him of stealing her nest egg.

A Patchwork Planet isn’t one of Tyler’s better known books, but I really enjoyed it, principally because of Barnaby’s engaging personality. This book is lots of fun.

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Review 1489: The Water Dancer

Hiram Walker is a slave on a Virginia plantation with a photographic memory and a talent for mimicry. As a boy, he attracts the attention of the master, who is also his father. His father has Hiram educated for a year, and the naïve boy imagines he might take an important place on the plantation, but the master’s intention is simply to have Hiram keep his heir, Maynard, out of trouble.

One day on the way back from town, the carriage, being driven recklessly by Maynard, goes into the river. Maynard is drowned, and Hiram wakes up in a field far away from the river. Hiram begins to fear he’ll be sold off to Maynard’s fiancée, Corinne. So, he plots an escape for himself and his master’s brother’s concubine, Sophia.

The Water Dancer has aspirations to literature, and that was one of my problems with it. Occasionally high-flown prose runs from the lyrical to the clichéd. Some of the conversations are absurdly unlikely. One of Coates’s affectations was for the slaves to call themselves the Tasked, which seems to be hardly authentic; in any case, I could find no other such use of the word.

Sometimes, the action slows almost to a halt. For example, Hiram falls into the water on page one and doesn’t come out until about page 100, during which Coates provides background. I’ve run into approaches like this before lately, and all I can say is that something like this that works in a movie doesn’t translate well to fiction, where you are reading for hours over a time that is supposed to be a few minutes.

Coates’s goal here isn’t to tell about the cruelties of slavery so much as to put his tale on a higher plane. He also introduces an element of speculative fiction.

I struggled with this book for about a week and decided to quit halfway through. At that point it was becoming clear that Sophia would have a bigger role, but her character was so little defined that I felt she was almost a MacGuffin. I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with Coates.

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Review 1488: Akin

Noah Selvaggio is an octogenarian widower about to set forth on a trip to his birthplace of Nice when he is contacted by a social worker. His eleven-year-old great nephew Michael, whom he has never met, is in need of a temporary place to stay. Michael’s father, Noah’s nephew, has been dead for a while; his mother is in jail; and his grandmother, who was his guardian, has just died. Michaels’s other grandmother, Noah’s sister, has been dead for some years. Rosa, the social worker, asks that he take Michael while she tries to contact an aunt.

Noah tries to make his trip a reason not to take Michael, but Rosa is able to get Michael a passport and permission from Amber, his mother, to take him. So, Noah reluctantly agrees to take charge of Michael.

Once in Nice, Noah begins to try to track down the origins of some photos he thinks may have belonged to his mother, Margot. During World War II, his father went to the States, leaving Margot and Noah in Nice under Nazi occupation. Later, she sent Noah ahead, following in a year or two. The explanation has always been that she stayed to take care of her father, a famous photographer. But Noah thinks there is some mystery.

Although the pair have lots of arguments, Michael gets interested in helping Noah seek the truth about his mother.

I found this book a quick, interesting read, and a bit more touching than some of Donoghue’s other books. I was interested in the search for the truth and in the characters of the protagonists.

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Review 1487: Strangers at the Gate

It seems too good to be true when Paddy Lamb returns from a job interview to report that he’s been offered a partnership at a firm in Simmerton. When his wife, Finnie, raises questions about where she is going to work and how far the commute is, he comes back with an offer of a lease on a cottage belonging to the firm’s owner and the promise of a job for her as a deacon at Simmerton Parish Church.

As soon as they arrive, things begin falling apart. Finnie can see that her help isn’t really needed at the parish church. Then, Finnie and Paddy are invited by Tuft Dudgeon, the wife of Paddy’s new boss, for dinner on the night they move in. They have a pleasant evening, and the two are walking home when Finnie realizes she left her bag. Something has been spooking her all day, so when she returns to the house and can’t raise the Dudgeons, she goes back to the kitchen. There she finds Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon in a pool of blood, apparent suicides.

She is about to call the police when Paddy stops her, because in his past he was involved in minor criminal activity. The couple decides to wait and let someone discover the bodies, thinking that will happen shortly. But when Paddy arrives at work, he finds that someone has sent a fax saying they have left on vacation to Brazil. The only problem is that the fax was sent after Finnie saw the bodies. As Finnie and Paddy try to get someone to discover the bodies, the lies begin to pile up.

My first impression of this situation was that it was a silly one for McPherson, who usually writes good modern-day cozy thrillers. It was hard for me to believe that Finnie would agree to lie. She is a deacon, albeit an unconventional one, and she seems to take this seriously although with a light touch. However, if you can buy into the situation, it’s a fairly wild ride to the conclusion.

I really love McPherson’s thrillers, because they combine a creepy plot with a community of likable characters often featuring life in a small Scottish village. This one follows that pattern while providing loads of atmosphere in this isolated, dark village.

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Review 1486: The Luminous Sea

On a bay in Newfoundland, Vivienne is collecting samples of sea life to study a phenomenon of luminescent tides, when she finds a creature. Although this creature is only suggestively described, we’re led to conclude that it’s a mermaid or a fish that led to the myth of mermaids.

Vivienne takes her find back to her boss, Colleen, who is thrilled. Colleen begins testing the creature to try to prove it is something heretofore undiscovered and notifies her own boss, Isaiah.

To Vivenne, the tests are too invasive, and the fish begins to lose its scales and seems to fail. When Isaiah brutally assaults her and Colleen angrily dismisses her complaint about it, Vivienne decides something must be done.

The Luminous Sea is narrated with luminous prose, leaving us with a book that is as beautiful as its cover (which, I admit, made me buy the book). This story about the balance between scientific discovery and humanity and about academic greed for recognition is really good.

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Review 1485: Bitter Orange

Frances, on her deathbed in some sort of institution, remembers the events of a summer 20 years before, in 1969, when she came to know her only friends. Frances’s mother has recently died when she takes a job at a crumbling mansion called Lyntons where she is to report on any interesting architectural features on the grounds to its new owner. There she meets Peter, who has been similarly employed to evaluate the house and its contents, and Cara, his wife.

Cara and Peter befriend Frances during a heady summer of near camping out in the destroyed house. The three soon begin picnicking and enjoying themselves while Cara tells Frances fascinating stories about their previous  lives.

There is clearly something a little overstrung and off about Cara, but Frances is entranced by the friendship she has never had before and also falling in love with Peter. Even when the two show they are not particularly honest, she is not dissuaded, despite hints from her other friend, Victor, the vicar.

This novel is wildly atmospheric while somehow remaining quiet. There are odd, unexplained touches—a telescope inserted into the floor of Frances’s attic bedroom, so that she can see what happens in the bathroom below, imagined smells, noises, and glimpses of faces in the attic, suggesting a haunting. Slowly, we realize that Frances has her own problems.

This is a haunting novel, evocatively written, about loneliness and longing, about the fathomless qualities of guilt. I was riveted by it.

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