Monday, June 7, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

30. Noah's Compass
by Anne Tyler
fiction, 2009
library book
unabridged audio read by Arthur Morey
finished, 5/31/10

My favorite Anne Tyler book, which I mentioned here, is Back When We Were Grownups. And now Noah's Compass has quickly become second on my personal list. I feel that her great, great gift as a writer is in her details. Details of places, and of the thoughts inside her characters' minds. I feel I know Liam Pennywell. In fact, I feel as if I've known him my whole life; that maybe he was someone I went to school with. He is sixty years old, widowed once, divorced once, with three daughters. One is from the first marriage to a young woman who killed herself, and the other two from his second wife. Though the couple are divorced, they have contact. There isn't acrimony between them. He also has a young grandson.

Liam has lost his teaching job because the two fifth grades in the school have consolidated into one. He moves into a new apartment and, because he forgets to lock his sliding glass door, someone comes in and hits him over the head, and bites his hand. Liam has no memory of any of it. The last thing he recalls is falling asleep. He wakes up in the hospital and is terribly unsettled because he can't remember what happened. He isn't particularly worried it will happen again. He isn't afraid to go home. But he hates having lost the memory of something that occurred in his life.

Liam meets a woman in her late thirties, who may just be the love of his older years. She's a very interesting character, with many quirks and opinions some of which are unusual and others which are, to my mind, quite charming. One of them is that she doesn't use the big highway because she doesn't like the 'peer pressure' of getting off the ramp onto the road.

The book explores their relationship, and also the relationships with his family. His youngest daughter Kitty ends up living with him for the summer. He babysits his grandson sometimes. During one of these times, the boy asks about Noah's ship (ark). In Liam's response, we find the source of the book's title.
... he wasn't going anywhere. There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down so he didn't need a compass. ...
In a few words, Anne Tyler gives the reader such a strong impression of his ex-wife's kitchen:
Liam loved Barbara's kitchen. It had never once been remodeled as far as he knew. ... The general look of it dated from the 1930s. ... Even the plants on the windowsill seemed old-fashioned; a yellowed philodendron wandering up to the curtain rod and down again; a prickly stunted cactus in a ceramic pot shaped like a burro.
I truly loved this book; the quiet, the characters, the way we get to know Liam so well. This isn't a story filled with drama or tragic events. The reader gets to spend some time in the company of these very human people, and I feel all the richer for it. Her characters become as friends. I love a book that shows people can have happiness in so-called small ways.

I will close my book report with some of the words which end the book. They will decide for you whether this is your kind of book or not. It sure is mine.
He leaned back against the cushions with a contented sigh. ... Socrates said ... What was it he had said? Something about the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods. And Liam really wanted nothing. He had an okay place to live, a good enough job, a book to read, a chicken in the oven. He was solvent, if not rich, and healthy.


  1. Anne Tyler is a wonderful observer of people.
    Her characters always ring so true.

  2. I hadn't heard of this title by Tyler and I have to admit that last sentence got my attention. And I am with you...I too love books that show happiness can be found in small ways:)

  3. I, too, loved this book and Anne Tyler is also one of my favorite authors. My preference is character-driven books, and she never fails me. The last paragraph is perfect, isn't it? Thanks for a great review! Annie

  4. Pamela, she certainly is. I'm impressed especially with her men characters who are so often gentle, kind spirits.

    Book Psmith, people seem to be searching for happiness in such big ways- high paying jobs, granite counters, the 'perfect' family, and AT never focuses on these things. Couldn't you just see that kitchen?

    Annie Joy, and I thank you! I'm so glad you liked it.

  5. Hi Nan, I'm so glad you wrote this report about Anne Tyler's new book. I'm looking forward to reading it. I recently purchased a few of Anne Tyler's books from a second-hand store. I looked through them, noticed the stories' male characters (I love books told from a male perspective), and read Anne's words and knew I had to have them. The books are patiently waiting for me to finish...Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which I found out about from your recent book review. How I love Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali! There is so much to this story. I'm almost done and I hope it ends in such a way that there will be a second book about the Major. And I love the picture on the cover, too! Before I end my comment, I do like the last words that you cited from the book and my kitchen does look like something from long ago (I have no granite countertops, dishwasher or built in cabinets---but I do have an old fashion walk-in pantry! --Catherine Mary

  6. I finished this book a few days ago and plan to write my review this coming weekend. I'll be back to read your review once I've finished.

  7. I checked this one because of Diane's awesome review and now I have yours to back it up. I'm really looking forward to the time I'm going to spend with this one!

  8. I love Anne Tyler and must make time to read more of her. She is a modern Dorothy Whipple, in that she is concerned with the heart and mind rather than drama and plot, and those are the sorts of books I must enjoy. She writes about ordinary life and makes it extraordinary, and it takes a very talented writer to do that. I have Breathing Lessons on my pile of to be read books, but this one looks very tempting. Great review!

  9. I've been waiting for some reviews of Tyler's latest - so glad you loved it. She has become an 'audio author' for me. After reading many of her early books, I listened to Digging to American then went on to The Amateur Marriage and Back When We Were Grownups. I loved all of them! Noah's Compass will be added to my audio wish list right away.

  10. Catherine Mary, how VERY good to hear from you. And I'm so glad you are liking the Major. I'd love a sequel. Anne Tyler's men seem to be gentle souls who think about life. I really like them. I bet your pantry is lovely. Did you happen to read the book report on Catherine Pond's book, The Pantry? It's a book you would so love.

    Les, I'll be so interested to hear what you thought. I know we are both kind of off and on with her books, though the ones I love, I really love!

    Staci, I'm going to go read Diane's review. I'm certain this is your kind of book.

    Rachel, I wasn't wild about Breathing Lessons, but I keep thinking I should like it even though I've read it twice and felt the same response. :<) It's funny because some of hers I just love and others I don't care for at all.

    JoAnn, the narrator was just right for the story. Really so good. And I love Blair Brown reading BWWWG.

  11. Oh good, I've got Back When We Were Grown-ups on the TBR pile - it's just moved up nearer the top!

  12. Geranium Cat, I have listened to this so many times! And I just bought the print version so I could pore over the words in a slower way.

  13. Nan,

    I am so happy that you loved this book as much as me. I agree, 62 is a litthle young to be put out to pasture....LOL

    This book did not get the hype, I would have expected, and actually I've seen very few reviews for it as well. (loved your thoughts).

    BTW...those "Strawberries" on your header are making me droll...thanks a lot!

  14. Diane, thanks for coming over to talk about the book. And the strawberries were delicious, as good as they look!

  15. OK, I finally got around to writing up my review. I think you liked this quite a bit more than I did! ;)

  16. I stopped by quickly yesterday, Les, and will be back to leave a note.


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