A lovable loser tries to get his life in order. He is Barnaby Gaitlin, 30, the black sheep of a rich Baltimore family, ex-juvenile delinquent who specialized in housebreaking for kicks. He works for Rent-a-Back, moving furniture for old people, and dreams of having a future.
The twentysomething drunken slacker protagonist/narrator speaks, thinks, and acts like a sixty-year-old woman (coincidentally, Anne Tyler was a sixty-year-old woman when she wrote this). In his "juvenile delinquency" (he actually describes himself as a former juvenile delinquent -- does anyone ever really do that?), he pulled such crazy hijinks as breaking into people's houses to rifle through their photo albums, leaving his friends to raid the liquor cabinet and jewelry box. My suspension of disbelief breaks down at this point. If you're the type of person who breaks into houses, you're not the type of person who stops to look through their pictures. And if you ARE the type of person who breaks into houses to look at pictures, you won't typically have the opportunity to do that, because you're locked inside a room where all the walls are soft.
The twentysomething drunken slacker protagonist/narrator also possesses inexplicable expertise in all sorts of women's fashions. The narrator never stumbles over a clothing description (and there are many), whether it's an A-line skirt, frock, or shift. I myself have no idea what a frock or shift is, and I've watched far too much Project Runway and What Not to Wear.
The twentysomething drunken slacker protagonist/narrator describes his experience with smoking weed as having "taken a puff or two" of "the harder stuff". This is when talking to another allegedly normal person, who is shocked and a little impressed by this bad-to-the-bone renegade. If I ever met someone who told me they had "taken a puff or two" of "the harder stuff", I would take off my shoe and hit them in the face with it for being such a cutesy little shit. The twentysomething drunken slacker protagonis/narrator also cannot handle the word "condom", so he dances around it whenever he has sex (or at least I guess he has sex; he dances around that topic to an absurd degree as well), which is rarely. He even gets the uncontrollable shakes when he's cornered into saying the word "mattress" in front a woman.
Sure, feeble attempts are made to explain away all this bullshit. He's a photo-looking cat-burglar because he had a bad mom. He knows about women's fashions because his great-grandfather patented a dress form. He has dirty-word issues because he works around old people. None of these excuses are as believable to me, though, as the alternative explanation -- that Anne Tyler has never been a twentysomething drunken slacker, and probably has never even met one, and probably should not attempt to write about one.
The backbone of the novel is trust - mainly, whether all the work that goes into building trust is worth it. That's kind of serious sounding, but the story is actually pretty light. Maybe a little too light. The lack of a more substantial story prevented this from being a great book, but Tyler's realistic dialogue (from both young and elderly characters) and offbeat sense of humor make it worth reading.
This is the story of Barnaby, an outcast in his family, and his search for identity and contentment. I'm not sure I liked the ending, but it left me thinking about it a few days later, which is unusual for me.
Along comes Sophia, a school-marmish sort of woman, who, as is mentioned in the book, "each night scrubs her face, brushes her teeth & climbs- alone- into her four-poster-bed". Barnaby thinks Sophia is his guardian-angel (a tradition in his family) & forms a relationship with her, striving to be as good as she is. What he doesn't realise, until the end, is that Sophia's goodness is only skin-deep, while his own character & potential is more truthful & honest by far.
What stays with me after closing the book is first, the whole theme of goodness & the ability to give to others, which is explored beautifully, & second, Anne Tyler's thoughts about old-age & elderly people...very chilling, very true. Those chapters broke my heart but I thought they were true to life.
I never did explain her presence to Natalie. I honestly don't know what I would have said.
The story of Barnaby Gaitlin, the black sheep son of a rich Baltimore family, who works for a company called Rent-a-back, which does the jobs that its elderly clients can't manage for themselves, no matter how small. I loved the descriptions of Barnaby's clients, such as "Over her forearm she carried a Yorkshire terrier, neatly folded like a waiter's napkin", and "Dirt was her personal enemy. Let her catch sigh of a cobweb and she would not rest until she had killed it dead", and I think that every city could do with having a Rent-a-back.
A hopeful look at how a life can be recovered from its past.
For eleven years, he's been working steadily for Rent-a-Back, renting his back to old folks and shut-ins who need help moving their furniture or bringing Christmas trees down from the attic. At long last, his life seems to be on an even keel.
Still the Gaitlins, of 'old' Baltimore, cannot forget the price they paid for buying off Barnaby's former victims. And his ex-wife would just as soon prefer that he never showed up to visit their little girl, Opal. Overall, Barnaby is still seen by everyone as the black sheep of a philanthropic family - who, instead of attending an Ivy League college and working for his family's charitable foundation - got sent to a reform school for wealthy boys as a teenager, and now works as a manual laborer. A distinct disappointment for the affluent and well-connected Gaitlin family of Baltimore.
Barnaby has spent the majority of his adult life trying to live up to his family's high ideals, failing miserably to fully atone for his teenage sins in their estimation. Eventually, a woman enters Barnaby's life, a woman he views as his guardian angel. Her name is Sophia, and even though she seems to have designs on him, she still doesn't entirely trust him. However, Sophia will ultimately change Barnaby's life in ways no one, least of all Barnaby himself, could ever imagine.
I truly appreciated reading this book. I will admit, the story was sort of humdrum with not much going on in the plot; but in my opinion, the book was certainly well-written and charming. I was thoroughly entertained and give this book an A!
Her protagonist, Barnaby is a misfit (his wealthy family would say a loser) but an endearing one who works for a service company called “Rent-a-Back” and struggles to get his life together. He progresses at a snail’s pace but we find ourselves rooting for his little victories and despairing over any rejections.