June 12, 2010

Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
2010 Knopf
Finished on 6/2/10
Rating: 3/5 (so-so)

Product Description

From the incomparable Anne Tyler, a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.

Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn’t bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is—well, something quite different.

We all know a Liam. In fact, there may be a little of Liam in each of us. Which is why Anne Tyler’s lovely novel resonates so deeply.

When Noah's Compass first came out, I read the opening paragraphs and thought it sounded like something I'd enjoy, so when I saw it on the New Release table at my library, I was excited to give it a try.

In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennwell lost his job. It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't even what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don't ask. Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well that he had seen the last of St. Dyfrig's dusty, scuffed corridors and those interminable after-school meetings and the reams of niggling paperwork.

In fact, this might be a sign. It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage—the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.

Tyler's characters tend to be on the quirky side. Even the names are a bit unusual. (One of Liam's daughter's is called Xanthe and another character is named Eunice.) While likeable, I never felt a connection to any of the characters and I especially had a hard time believing Liam was only 61. My husband is only three years younger than Tyler's main character and yet I never once felt they were contemporaries. Liam came across as an elderly old man, ready to spend his days in a rocking chair—certainly not one to climb on a motorcycle and go out for an afternoon ride when the mood strikes, as my husband often does.

Noah's Compass is a quiet story. A slice of life, one might say. It was an easy, light read, but as I finished, I felt disappointed, hoping for more. I was mildly annoyed that the mystery behind the attack on Liam was never revealed, but I suppose that's life. We don't always get all the answers we are looking for.

I only found a couple of passages to mark, and, coincidentally, Nan noted one of the same in her review! But, unlike me, Nan loved this book. I wonder if I would've enjoyed it more had I listened to the audio rather than reading the printed version?

It had been years since he had had any sort of romantic life. He'd more or less given up on that side of things, it seemed. But now he remembered the significance that a love affair could lend to the most ordinary moments. The simplest activities could take on extra color and intensity. Days had a purpose to them—an element of suspense, even. He missed that.


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.

Final thoughts: I'm not sure why I keep reading Anne Tyler. I've yet to fall in love with anything she's written, but every time she writes something new, I feel compelled to give it a try. I've read (and liked) Ladder of Years, A Patchwork Planet, Back When We Were Grownups, The Amateur Marriage, and Digging To America, but I really can't say I loved any one of those. And, I still have Morgan's Passing, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Clock Winder, Celestial Navigation, and Breathing Lessons all in my stacks! What's your favorite Anne Tyler book?

Be sure to pop over and read Nan's glowing review here.


  1. I think I liked this one more than you did, but I'm a big Anne Tyler fan.

  2. Anonymous1:32 PM

    I haven't read all that many Anne Tyler books. The ones I can remember and it seemed I liked them a lot when I read them are LADDER OF YEARS and BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS. I think that LADDER OF YEARS was the first book I read that was the story of a forty-something woman who decided she had to get out and change her life, that she had something more to give and her family didn't appreciate her. I remember liking BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS a lot too, but I can't really remember why. Hmmmm......

  3. For whatever reasons Tyler is not an author I've ever been fond of. I don't remember specifically not liking something, but I also don't remember ever liking anything.

  4. I went through a huge Anne Tyler phase in the early 80's, loving all of her works written in the beginning of her career. Since then, I've been left a little cold. I think Ladder of Years is the last one I really liked; I haven't even read Amateur Marriage which I own.

    It's funny how you say the 61 year old is so different from Rod. I find a huge discrepancy in people who are 'older'; my mother, in fact, is very trim and sassy (doing Pilates every day!). She can run circles around both my father and I. Apparently she's younger than this male character, too,at 74. ;)

    I'm interested in why you said you wonder why you keep reading someone you're not crazy about. Why do we do that? We get stuck in patterns, I guess.

    By the way, I saw that Elizabeth Berg was slated to be on the panel for the Chicago Printer's Row festival; but we didn't end up going due to the heat, humidity, and carryings-on from the Blackhawks winning the cup. Lots of drama in Chi-town this week!

  5. This does seem to be one of those "love it or hate it" books as so many of Tyler's books are.

  6. I haven't read this one and just finished The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and I found it boring (I haven't read her books before). My review of Accidental Tourist: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2010/06/book-review-accidental-tourist-novel-by.html . I don't think I'll be reading any more of her books...

  7. I've only read Ladder of Years and A Patchwork Planet and remember liking them. I just don't remember why. So I'm not going to race out to buy her next one. Too many other books calling my name.

  8. I agree with your final thoughts about Anne Tyler, Les. I'm not sure why we feel the need to keep reading an author we don't really love. Guess we just keep hoping that she/he will give us THE book that we've been waiting for.

    Favorite? Probably a toss up between Ladder of Years and Accidental Tourist.

  9. I feel the same way about Anne Tyler. I hardly ever can say I love her books and her characters always seem a bit 2 dimensional to me, yet I always feel compelled to read her books. I have read Ladder of Years, Amateur Marriage, A Patchwork Planet and Digging to America. My favorite would be Digging to America. I also have Breathing Lessons and Back When We Were Grownups on my shelf to read someday.

  10. I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit and most especially Liam. His daughters were horrible with the exception of Kitty. I wasn't ready to throw her out but at times she came close.

  11. I haven't read as many as you have, but I enjoyed Breathing Lessons. My favorite, though: Saint Maybe. I think I read more, but I'd have to dig to be sure which titles they were.

  12. First of all, thank you for mentioning my review. It was truly heartfelt, for I did so love the book. I think, and I may be wrong, but I think that we are much the same in older years as we are in younger. I can imagine that Liam has been like this his whole life. And I'm a little like him. Quiet, happy in my chair reading. I've never been awfully athletic or outdoorsy. I've sort of been like an older person my whole life. But I will say that I have felt quite a change since I turned 60. As I did when I was 30. I wonder if I will at 90! I would no more hop on a motorcycle than I would jump out of a plane. My thrills are much tamer. :<) As you know, I don't love everything she has written. I've read Breathing Lessons twice and didn't care for it either time. I had problems with Digging to America and A Patchwork Planet, though I loved An Accidental Tourist (not an easy book since a child has died). I couldn't get through Ladder of Years because she left her children. I couldn't relate to that woman at all. There are still several I haven't read but look forward to. I seem to like her best when there is something uplifting in her characters, a cheerfulness. And though I didn't identify with any of the women in this book, I thought they were quite truly drawn. Kitty seemed real, and the daughter who was religious drove me crazy with her judgement of him. Okay, I've gone on way long enough. :<)

  13. I've never read any of Tyler's stuff, but a friend of mine in grad school (a guy) highly recommended The Amateur Marriage. That always struck me as a little weird since, well, I think of Tyler as a woman's kind of writer. So anyway, maybe I'll try her one day, but she doesn't grab me by the nosehairs with the plot descriptions I've read.

  14. Anonymous7:02 AM

    I haven't enjoyed any recent Anne Tyler books, but I still love and re-read Clock Winder and Accidental Tourists. Her early work is so much better than her recent book.

  15. I've only read one Anne Tyler book and it was such a total dud that I've never been tempted to read more. I noticed nobody mentioned it: St. Maybe. It started off very promising but it was one of those books in which you have high hopes for a character and he keeps making bad choices till it's too late to fix anything at all. It was depressinng.

  16. Anne Tyler is like the St. Louis Cardinals for me: I can't stop being her fan.

    Haven't read Noah's Compass yet...hoping to find a copy during vacation.

    My favorites of hers are Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, A Slipping-Down Life, The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe and Morgan's Passing. (in no particular order)

  17. Thanks for all the great comments! I am so sorry I've let them linger so long without responding. It's been a busy few weeks. Typical for this time of year, but I still feel bad for not being a better blogger!


    Kathy - I'll have to pop over and re-read your review.

    Kay - I only have a vague recollection of Ladder of Years and Back When We Were Grownups. For some reason, Tyler's plots never seem to stick with me.

    Pam - There are some authors I know I dislike (Atwood, Morrison...), but Tyler falls into that gray area of like-but-don't-love.

    Bellezza - Was Ladder of Years the one where the woman goes to the beach with her family (maybe just her kids) and pretty much just walks away from them? I only have a vague sense of recollection about that book.

    I have no idea why I keep reading someone I'm not crazy about. Maybe because I already own the books? But that can't be true because Noah's Compass is new and I got it from the library.

    I think it'd be fun to see Elizabeth Berg, but she's becoming one of those authors I'm not as keen on as I used to be. I do enjoy her blog, though!

    Lisa - Isn't it funny how some authors are like that (love-hate) and others you just know are going to have hit after hit after hit?

    Christa - I haven't read The Accidental Tourist, but I remember watching the movie YEARS ago and thinking it was pretty quirky. Thanks for including your review. I'll pop over and give it a read later this morning.

    Framed - You're the second person to say they liked a couple of her books, but don't remember why. I find this interesting. And when I asked my husband, he said maybe she's like spongecake. It's pleasant and you enjoy it at the time, but it really doesn't have much of a taste. Yep. That's my husband. Always thinking about dessert. ;)

    Marcia - Yes, I think you're right. I'm always searching for that #1 book that will resonate with me personally.

    Kim - Wow. It seems like everyone has a similar feeling about this author!

    Staci - Off to read your review. I tend to hold off until I write my own and forgot to go back and read yours!

    Word Lily - Hmmm, Saint Maybe is one I don't own. But if it's your favorite, perhaps I should give it a try! Thanks for stopping by.

    Nan - You're more than welcome!

    Ah, I'd forgotten that a child dies in An Accidental Tourist. I may have to skip that one...

    Thanks for your wonderful comment. You could never go on too long!!

    Andi - Hmmm, I asked Rod if he's ever read any of her books and all he could think of is The Accidental Tourist. I agree that she is more of a woman's kind of writer. Let me know if you wind up reading anything good by her.

    Anonymous - I'll have to try Clock Winder one of these days. Maybe she's like Elizabeth Berg and has run out of ideas for her novels. Might be time to try something completely different.

    Bookfool - I'm beginning to feel much better about not enjoying this author. I always thought she was so well-loved! Hmmm, Word Lily mentioned St. Maybe and said it's a favorite. Not sure what to do about that one now. If you say it's depressing, I may have to skip it after all!

    Bybee - I love your comparison! I guess I'm too much of a fair-weather fan. ;)

    BTW, I've never even heard of A Slipping-Down Life. This must be one of her earliest, huh?

  18. I just finished "Noah's Compass" and I have had the book since it first came out! I am a huge Anne Tyler fan, have read all her books, but this one was slow for me. I felt none of the characters were well developed and found myself wondering what happened to Eunice? My fav Tyler book is "Morgan's Passing", with "Ladder of Years" a close second. I used to be a huge Elizabeth Berg fan also, but have not been able to get through her last few books.

  19. Ann - It's nice to hear from a fan of Anne Tyler's who was also disappointed with Noah's Compass. I wasn't sure if it was me or the book, but apparently others have found it slow and underdeveloped (with regard to the characters).

    I feel the same way as you about Elizabeth Berg, but I do so enjoy her blog!

    Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I apologize for taking so long to respond. It's been such a busy summer!


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