June 12, 2010
Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
Finished on 6/2/10
Rating: 3/5 (so-so)
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.