I do like Anne Tyler novels, so when someone donated this one to the second hand book stall at my daughter’s school fete I had to have it. One of the perks of volunteering is that we see the books first. It was clearly a well-loved novel and might even have had a bath at some stage!
Here’s the blurb …
Barnaby Gaitlin is a loser – just short of thirty he’s the black sheep of a philanthropic Baltimore family. Once upon a time he had a home, a loving wife, a little family of his own; now he has an ex-wife, a 9-year-old daughter with attitude, a Corvette Sting Ray that’s a collectors item but unreliable, and he works as hired muscle for Rent-a-Back, doing heavy chores for old folks. He has an almost pathological curiosity about other people’s lives, which has got him into serious trouble in the past, and a hopeless charm which attracts the kind of angelic woman who wants to save him from himself. Tyler’s observation is more acute and more delicious than ever; her humour slyer and more irresistible; her characters so vividly realised that you feel you’ve known this quirky collection for ever. With perfect pitch and poise, humor and humanity, Anne Tyler chronicals, better than any writer today, the sublime and the ridiculous of everyday living, the foibles and frailties of the ordinary human heart.
At first I wondered what type of book I was reading, as Barnaby stalked a women he met at the train station, but my sympathy for Barnaby grew as the story progressed. He appeared to be a hopeless case – troubled youth, unskilled job and divorced with a bad relationship with his daughter, but as the story unfolds you realise there is more to Barnaby than appears at first sight.
All of the Gaitlin men meet an ‘angel’ who changes the direction of their lives. Barnaby thinks the woman on the train, Sophia, might just be his angel. She does change the direction of his life, but not in the way you would expect. She finds him charming on the train and is intrigued (and attracted) by his job. So much so she encourages her ageing aunt to employ him several hours a week. Meanwhile we meet Barnaby’s mother a ‘poor girl who has married well’ who can’t let go of Barnaby’s mis-spent youth. Frequently reminding him of the money they had to spend to pay-off the neighbours after his thefts. Barnaby and Sophia embark on a relationship and Barnaby decides to pay his mother back the money and so free himself from her forever. The other interesting character is Martine Barnaby’s co-worker and friend (they have a lovely bantering relationship). Sophia’s aunt accuses Barnaby of stealing her money (everyone knows she keeps it in the flour tin). It turns out she moved it and then forgot, but Sophia replaces the money in the tin (therefore proving herself to doubt Barnaby). Sophia is originally attracted to Barnaby because of his job, but then she wants him to change – get a better job (perhaps at her bank) and keep the money his mother refuses to take to buy the occasional luxury.
This brings me to theme or idea that I have been thinking about since finishing this novel – life style choices and how hard it is to go against the conventional view of success. By all accounts Barnaby’s life is a failure – failed marriage, dead-end job and living in someone’s basement, but his job is valuable (and brings joy and companionship to the people he helps) and he doesn’t have extravagant needs or wants. He is content.
“The way I see it, everyone has a choice: living rich and working hard to pay for it, or living a plain uncomplicated life and taking it easy”
As with all Anne Tyler novels the writing is beautiful.
If I had to eat one more stewy-tasting, mixed and mingled, gray-colored one-dish meal, I’d croak!
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