Tyler’s appealing warmth and flair for eccentric comedy are abundantly displayed in her superb 14th novel, following close on the heels of such recent successes as Breathing Lessons (1988) and Saint Maybe (1991). The story’s narrator and main character (and, arguably, hero) is Barnaby Gaitlin, an underachieving Baltimorean approaching 30 who’s divorced, stuck in a no-future job (which he loves) with Rent-a-Back, performing miscellaneous chores for elderly and disabled people, and indebted, financially and otherwise, to his upscale parents (who manage a charitable foundation) for his well- remembered juvenile delinquency. A beautifully plotted and skillfully exfoliating narrative traces Barnaby’s gradual shedding of his youthful indifference and irresponsibility, and immersion in a nest of relationships that stimulate his growth into the “good boy” his clients believe him to be. There isn’t a saccharine moment in this affecting story, which begins as Barnaby, en route to visit his young daughter in Philadelphia, contrives to meet a pleasant woman traveler who unself-consciously agrees to perform a favor for a distraught stranger. The puzzle of Sophia Barnes’s instinctive goodness draws Barnaby to her and, paradoxically, toward another “housebreaking” that is the making of him as it’s also an ironic echo of the novel’s opening action. Prominent among the unlikely reality instructors who simultaneously smooth and ruffle Barnaby’s amusingly described passage toward maturity are his patient father and disapproving mother (who, it seems, cannot forgive her son for outgrowing his waywardness), and especially his several aged employers, all knowing they’re headed toward death, yet uniformly determined to hold onto whatever world is left them (for example, Mrs. Alford, who dies only after completing her “quilt of our planet”—“makeshift and haphazard, clumsily cobbled together, overlapping and crowded and likely to fall into pieces at any moment”). Absolutely wonderful: Tyler’s many admirers are sure to number this among her very best work.