Finding Direction

Book Review of “Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler.

48c9d-noah2527s2bcompassAt only the age of 61, Liam is suddenly unemployed, but that’s not worrying him. He didn’t really love the job, anyway. It was just something he fell into; there there aren’t many positions for someone with a degree in philosophy. No, he won’t miss teaching history to fifth graders, and retirement actually sounds appealing. Yes, he has to downsize and be more frugal to manage with his reduced income, but that’s okay too. Unfortunately, on his first night in his new apartment, someone broke in and attacked him, and after he woke up from his concussion, he couldn’t remember anything after falling asleep. To recover this small loss of memory, Liam ends up searching for more than a few hours of time, and in places he never thought he’d go.

Reading this book published in 2010 comes under the heading of “novels by favorite authors I never got around to reading.” My first introduction to Anne Tyler was with her book The Accidental Tourist in 1985, which struck me as particularly intriguing, mostly because the characters were so quirky in their ordinariness. That was what made me an automatic fan. Regrettably, the “so many books, so little time” syndrome forced me to overlook many of Tyler’s previous and subsequent works. While this isn’t a mission to read everything written by Tyler (although that might not be a bad idea), my motivation was to at least partially fill this void by reading a lesser-known novel.

What I found was is a very typical Tyler novel. Her ultimately lovable, yet sometimes annoying characters are simple people, who are often solitary in their habits even when they’re not alone in their lives. Liam is exactly like this. Once widowed, once divorced, he seems to have floated through life, which his three (mostly) grown daughters all noticed. Their worries about him, particularly after the break-in and subsequent concussion, increase, but while they’re afraid for his safety, he’s more worried about those missing hours. All of this sounds perfectly par for the course for a man getting on in age, who not only finds himself prematurely retired, but who just experienced a trauma. To shake this up, into this mix Tyler brings Eunice. Eunice is a young assistant to Mr. Cope, an old man who is apparently one of the wealthiest business owners in town. The essence of her job with Cope is to remind him of his obligations and duties – or if you will, to be his memory. This is what first attracts Liam to Eunice, and under the guise of his looking for a job, they begin meeting. What happens between them, together with the attempts of his daughters to help Liam is the meat and bones of this story.

I have to admit that as I was reading this novel, I wondered about the title, particularly regarding who Noah was. However, I eventually realized that the title here was actually a metaphor for Liam, and that the name here refers to the person in the bible story, and not one of Tyler’s characters. In other words, this story is about how Liam navigates himself into this new chapter in his life. Again, this sounds somewhat mundane, but the warmth and humor that Tyler builds into her characters, combined with some somewhat unusual behavior is what draws her readers in, forcing us to empathize and fall in love with practically every one of them. Of course, Tyler’s deceptively simple, third person POV prose mingles beautifully with the natural sounding dialog in a perfect fictional package that feels almost like a memoir. However, despite this praise, I do understand why this is a lesser-known Tyler work. I think what I was slightly lacking here was one of those “oh wow” moments where everything just slips into place until the conclusion. There are a few “aah” moments, however, although they didn’t quite satisfy my desire for a real bang-up of a climax. All this means that although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can recommend it warmly, I’m going to give it four and a half stars out of five.


The 2009 novel “Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase goes to support world literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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