Monday, April 26, 2010

Review of Anne Tyler: "Noah's Compass"

Ever since I discovered Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I've loved Anne Tyler's Baltimore, her offbeat people, her insights into what makes individuals - and families - tick. Most of all, I enjoy her ability to evoke a character in a few deft and often funny lines. Take this exchange, for example, from her newest novel, Noah's Compass:
He said, "The divorce was Barbara's idea, not mine. I don't even believe in divorce; I've always felt marriages are meant to be permanent. If it were up to me, we'd still be together."

"What was she unhappy about?" Eunice asked.

"Oh," he said, "I guess she felt I wasn't, um, forthcoming."

Eunice went on looking at him expectantly.

He turned his palms up. What more could he say?
 I began reading Noah's Compass, not only because I enjoy Anne Tyler, but also because the dust-jacket description looked promising: " ... 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."

I realize that people who write marketing copy rarely have time to read the whole book, but they should get beyond the first page - and editors should check their work. Liam Pennywell is "in the sixty-first year of his life," which makes him 60, not 61, as Tyler mentions at least eight times. He has been teaching but is not, at heart, a schoolteacher. He has lost his job, but this does not mean he has to retire. He is not in the final phase of his life (though he seems willing to go there) - his health is good, and his father is still alive and strong. And, most important, he doesn't really come to terms with anything.

The copywriter is right, however, about the book's wisdom, humor, and compassion.

Liam Pennywell is widowed, divorced, newly laid off, and, by chapter two, convalescent. He has a sister, a father, a stepmother, a friendly ex-wife, three daughters, and a grandson, but he lives alone and has little to do with any of his family members. A sudden crisis brings them all back into his life. His bossy sister brings dinner (beef stew, and he eats no red meat); his youngest daughter moves in with him; his middle daughter expects him to baby-sit; and Eunice ... well, she's about as opposite from him as a person could be, and she's amazingly persistent. His life, which had become as stark as his new apartment, seems suddenly richer.

But that's an outsider's opinion. Mine, and probably Tyler's. For Liam, life just seems messier and noisier. This is a man, after all, who "really enjoyed a good movie. He found it restful to watch people's conversations without being expected to join in." This a man who looks forward to being alone on Christmas Day.

If I were discussing Noah's Compass in a book group, I'd point out that the end of the book sounds a lot like its beginning. I'd like to hear what others think will happen next in Liam's life. Have six tumultuous months changed him in any essential way? Or is he going to give in to senescence well before he's even eligible for Medicare?

As for the title, you'll figure it out in chapter 11. If you're impatient, just ask yourself : Did Noah have a compass? Did he need one? Why or why not?


Anonymous said...

I'm going to look for this book at the bookstore. I've enjoyed every Anne Tyler book I've read. (Sometimes her lines make me snort with laughter. OK, that is a little gross, but it's true. Ask my 7 year old; she's heard me do it.) So thanks for the thoughtful blog post and the new reading material.

Sherril said...

I just finished reading Noah's Compass and even though I'd read Chapter 11, I couldn't figure out how she chose the title. Your suggestion gave me the answer. Noah did not have a compass and as Liam said, he did not need a compass, for Noah's ark was not going anywhere. Thanks.