Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Noah's Compass

Anne Tyler has a talent for getting to the core of even the most ordinary of lives. Her characters are real people making their way the best they can from one day to the next. Readers seeking thrilling plot elements or adventures will not find them in an Anne Tyler novel, but those wanting to learn more about the human condition and the humor to be found in everyday life will very much appreciate her work.

Liam Pennywell is a typical Anne Tyler character. Liam, at 60 years of age, does not consider his life to have been much of a success - and he is right about that. Unable to make a living in his area of expertise, Liam has fallen back on a career of teaching history at a private boys' school in Baltimore, a position that does not require from him so much as a formal teaching certificate. In the meantime, his two marriages have fallen apart and, at this point in his life, he is no longer close to his three daughters or his grandson. Liam lives alone and his only friend, even by the most generous definition of that word, is another of the teachers at the boys' school.

When Liam is suddenly downsized by the school, he decides to simplify his life by moving into a tiny apartment in a more downscale part of the city. He almost welcomes the fact that he has been forced into early retirement and is planning a lifestyle more appropriate to his reduced circumstances. After settling into the new apartment with the help of his one friend and his youngest daughter's boyfriend, Liam falls asleep in his new bedroom. He wakes up - in the hospital - and, although Liam has no memory of the event, it seems that sometime during the night an intruder entered his apartment through the unlocked patio door and knocked Liam unconscious before leaving empty-handed.

Liam feels as if the burglar has stolen part of his life and he is obsessed about regaining his lost memory of what actually happened that night. His search for someone to help him recover the memory leads him, almost accidentally, into a relationship with 38-year-old Eunice, a free-spirit of a woman who finds herself attracted to the older man. Liam is slow to recognize that Eunice is offering him a shot at the kind of joyfully spontaneous lifestyle he has never known. Then, when he finally figures it out, the idea scares him so much that he is not sure how to respond to what might be his last chance to make something interesting of his life.

"Noah's Compass" is about relationships and how people perceive each other. It explores Liam's inner world by taking a frank look at his relationship with his three daughters, his ex-wives, his grandson and the new woman who so unexpectedly enters his life. It is a book about having the courage to take chances, and how sometimes the biggest risk in life comes from a reluctance to gamble a bit before it is too late and the chance is lost forever.

Liam Pennywell tends to be a boring and timid man, one willing to shut down his life at the relatively young age of sixty, but his mistakes, and his little triumphs, have much to teach us. Readers will, I suspect, appreciate this novel more a few days after finishing it than they will upon immediately turning its final page. This one has to simmer a while.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. I read this months ago (get a copy from England where it was released in August) and it is still simmering.

    I adore Anne Tyler's writing. Thought these interviews might be of interest to you, Sam.

  2. I've read The Accidental Tourist, The Amateur Marriage (a fave), and Saint Maybe. Tyler's storytelling seems to fit her own psyche--restrained, understated. Certainly not plot-heavy, but I'm finding more & more that I respect her for the slow simmer. It runs against the grain of "immediacy" and cheap thrills that our society seems anchored upon.

  3. I can't wait to get my hands on this...I'm hoping it'll show up in Korea soon.

  4. Thanks for those links, JoAnn. I'm on my way...

  5. Mike, Tyler writes an anti-thriller, for sure. I try to read all of her novels but I have to admit that I prefer her earlier work to what she's done in the past decade or so.

  6. I would think her publisher would have her out there ASAP, Bybee. She's got enough prestige to sell books just on her name alone these days...anywhere in the world.