Anne Tyler is known and loved for her character studies—delicate and perceptive probings into imperfect, achingly familiar lives. Noah’s Compass, her 18th novel, is the latest in a long line of these profiles of a character exploring, within the boundaries of family obligations, the possibilities of stepping outside an otherwise uneventful existence.
When Liam Pennywell is nearly 61, he loses his job teaching fifth grade at St. Dyfrig, a “second-rate” boys’ school in Baltimore. He’s been downsized, not fired, he’s quick to point out to inquisitive family members, and he never really liked being a teacher anyway—“those interminable after-school meetings and the reams of niggling paperwork.” Liam’s degree and lifelong interest was in philosophy, but “things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago.”
Within the week, Liam moves to a one-bedroom apartment near the Baltimore Beltway and begins his own systematic downsizing, tossing out magazines, never-used dissertation note cards and furniture until he can fit all of his possessions into a 14-foot U-Haul truck. The first night in his sparse new home Liam is attacked by an intruder—an event he can’t remember when he wakes up the next day in the hospital, bandaged and bruised.
And so unfolds the next stage in Liam’s quiet life, in which he reopens himself to the possibility of love, while finally accepting the fact that his relationships with his father and daughters are fixed, whatever their flaws may be. Tyler’s acutely perceptive observations of family interactions are dead on, like when Liam realizes that he and his father have virtually nothing to say to one another. “Why,” she writes, “did Liam have to learn this all over again on every visit?” She gradually paints her portrait of this ordinary, uncomplicated man, spending Christmas alone, but with “an okay place to live, a good enough job. A book to read. A chicken in the oven . . . solvent, if not rich, and healthy.” Like Noah without a compass, bobbing up and down with nowhere to go, Liam leaves us wondering about our own later years, and what will bring us peace, or regrets.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.