230 of 250 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2010
I remember emerging from a New York City art museum, some years ago, after spending an hour looking at the artwork in a Richard Estes exhibition. Estes is a photo-realist painter of meticulously detailed urban scenes. As soon as I hit the sidewalk I noticed that storefronts, taxis, buses, office towers, the dome of the sky -- all looked different. I was seeing the world with new eyes, with more sharply focused vision -- an aftereffect of immersion in Estes' art. Most striking was a heightened awareness of the unique light that fills the streets of Manhattan. Everything was vivid.
A similar transformation occurs whenever I finish a new novel by Anne Tyler and return to the real world. Time spent with Tyler engenders new perceptions of the everyday physical environment. It also inspires a more generous understanding of human interactions, personal relationships, family dynamics.
"Noah's Compass" is among Tyler's least ambitious novels. Still, the book's pleasures are abundant, and the author is in full command of her craft. Some critics disparage Tyler as a play-it-safe miniaturist. They say she avoids grappling with the Big Themes of history and politics, existence and death. She's stuck in the quotidian. Yet even in this modest story, Tyler is not afraid to confront harrowing truths. The novel's protagonist, Liam Pennywell, observes: "We live such tangled, fraught lives . . . but in the end we die like all the other animals and we're buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed." Could these words be a bone Tyler is throwing to ravenous critics? Probably not, as Tyler likely doesn't pay much attention to what others would prefer her to write about. Even her most severe critics have to concede, I think, that she shares with the best Big Theme novelists a rare power to convey to the reader what it feels like to be alive. This talent is on display once again in "Noah's Compass".
One of the pleasures of the book is that its hold on the reader gains strength page after page. It begins in familiar Tyler territory, introducing a main character divorced from a full life, surviving on half measures. In one deftly sketched scene after another, Liam, passive and possibly depressive, is beset by the women in his life. They intrude upon his present as well as his memory. And, in a seemingly uneventful life, some events leave wounds. Complications blend the farcical and tragic. Inveterate Tyler readers, familiar with the usual arc of her plots, know from the outset that Liam will find himself in a different state by the close of the tale. He will grow a bit, as will the reader.
The book's final chapter takes place in a charmed setting: a preschool class of three-year-olds. It is a perfect stage upon which to close out the narrative with a modest summing up. A decade ago, on the final page of "A Patchwork Planet," Tyler led its young protagonist, Barnaby Gaitlin, to a life-changing decision -- the choice of a mate. Barnaby says yes to his intended by quoting a line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29: "Haply I think on thee." In contrast, the end of "Noah's Compass" is more equivocal, more elegiac. Liam, a retired teacher summoned back to life, demonstrates simply (in the manner of old Prospero) that a new chapter is ready to begin, even while this tale -- this particular entertainment -- has reached its close.
Tyler's novels insist there are no solutions to the mysteries of why people are the way they are. Life offers no answers. Yet there are, in the author's universe, lessons to be absorbed, more things to learn, as when Liam looks upon the children he cares for as a volunteer teaching assistant:
"It came as news to [Liam] that small children maintained such a firm social structure. They played consistent roles in their dealings with each other; they held fierce notions of justice; they formed alliances and ad hoc committees and little vigilante groups. Lunches were parodies of grownups' dinner parties, just with different conversational topics. Danny held forth at length on spaghetti's resemblance to earthworms, and some of the little girls said, "Eww!" and pushed their plates away, but then Hannah -- first clearing her throat importantly -- delivered a discourse on a chocolate-covered ant she'd once eaten, while shy little Jake watched everybody admiringly from the sidelines."
What always happens when reading an Anne Tyler novel happened, this time, when I was halfway through "Noah's Compass." Tyler aficionados know what I'm talking about. You come upon a magical passage; read a perfectly-phrased description of a person or place or encounter; listen to a precisely-pitched stretch of dialog; savor a descriptive paragraph that expresses a sentiment often thought "but ne'er so well expressed" -- and you think to yourself, How the hell did she do that? Let me read that again. Let me grab a pencil so I can mark these spots. But then you find yourself marking up every page. Tyler has done it again.
I love the Baltimore dialect ("let me skootch this footstool around"), the surprises offered up from Tyler's rich bag of similes ("the marble treads were worn down in the middle like old soap bars"), and the Updike-like attention to detail. Rhymes and echoes abound, usually in service to Tyler's ever-wise examination of human psychology. Virtually everything has metaphorical significance. Relationships evolve through fits and starts. On his first encounter with a new acquaintance named Eunice, Liam reflects on her behavior: "Either she was admirably at ease anywhere or she suffered from a total lack of discrimination." The tension of yes and no, true and false, is non-stop. This is life.
When complications reach their heaviest, Liam asks, "How had things reached such a state? But it wasn't his fault. He honestly didn't think he should be shouldering the blame for this." This brings to mind the opening sentence of a notable Big Theme novel from the last century: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested." In Tyler's hands, the serious is leavened with the comical. Liam, arrested in his tracks, comes across as a bit of a schlemiel. Although she loves her characters and watches over them tenderly from the sidelines (like shy little Jake), Tyler lets no one off lightly. None of us escapes unscathed.
74 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Noah didn't need a compass, a rudder or a sextant because he wasn't going anywhere; he just bobbed along trying to stay afloat. Liam Pennywell, the 60 year old narrator of Anne Tyler's latest novel, "Noah's Compass", has been getting by without a compass for years. Alone, unemployed, a little lonely, closed off, thinking his life is behind him, Liam has what we call a "life-changing experience". In fact, he has two of them; one is physical and the other metaphorically dangles in front of him his much needed "compass" ...if he'll only recognize it.
To open an Anne Tyler novel is to open yourself to care about her characters and "Noah's Compass" is no different. I fell in love with Liam Pennywell and Eunice Dunstead, (a "rememberer"). Even Tyler's less loving characters are appealing through their all-too-human faults. Liam's stern older sister, his brisk ex-wife, and his three daughters, are all endearing in their own way. One never wishes evil on a Tyler character because they all reflect back something of ourselves. Her characters are familiar, archetypal and "Tyler-esque"; in all her novels we see people who are stumbling around in the dark. They don't even grope for their identities and their life purposes, those things just seem to fall upon them like odds and ends off an attic shelf.
One quirky character (a redundant term in Anne Tyler's world!) misquotes: "Those that forget the past are doomed to regret the present." Eventually Liam does take some ownership of his past mistakes, but will he use the insight to change his present? Will Liam wake up from his malaise and start living a full life? Will he grab his last chance at love? Will his life change? Should it? Is contentment enough?
The worst thing about a new Anne Tyler novel is the wait for the next one. In the meantime, I'll re-read "Noah's Compass" and several other of my favorite Tyler novels and I'll love them as much as I ever did, and glean new insights from each.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Summary and review, no spoilers.
This story is told from the point of view of 60 year old Liam Pennywell, who due to financial cut-backs has recently been let go from his position as a 5th grade teacher at a boys school. Liam didn't try all that hard to be spared this dismissal, and in fact Liam seems as if he doesn't care much about anything at all.
Liam has downsized from a spacious apartment in a nice part of town, to a small two bedroom in a seedier area. Like many an Anne Tyler character, he is looking back on his life and trying to figure out how he got here, and why he has not had the success he should have had, and why he is leading the life he is now.
During the course of this seemingly simple yet complex little novel, we are introduced to the cast of characters that make up Liam's past - his wives, his daughters, his own parents, and an oddball (this is Anne Tyler country) woman with whom Liam establishes a rapport.
There is not a lot of action in this novel. We don't go traveling very far, and the story takes place over just one year. Yet, Anne Tyler once again makes brilliant observations about people and what makes us tick. You may think your experiences and reflections and hopes and dreams are unique - but they're not. They are shared, and there were many moments in this book that just had me shaking my head in recognition and empathy. Her observations about aging are spot on.
The only criticism I have is that I was a bit unsettled at the end. I know that some of the complaints about this book have been about the ending, but I believe that Tyler is telling us something about memory - that truly seeing and understanding our past will enrich our lives and make getting old not just a wait for the end.
I recommend this book can it be enjoyed by anyone, but best appreciated by those 50 and older.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2010
A few odd things about this book.
First of all, the main character, Liam, is only 61 years old, but he acts like he is 80 and seem so out of touch with "life" that he's probably one of the weakest characters Tyler's ever created. There's really "nothing there" -- he has no emotion, no sense of self and so we care little about him.
He has 3 daughters, one of which is an angry religious fundamentalist. And for no reason, other then the one scene where her son has a coloring book.
The title refers to a scene with Liam and his grandson who is coloring a Bible coloring book of Noah's ark. "Noah's compass" is an observation the main character gives when the grandson asks how Noah directed the ark. There was no sail, etc--Noah's "compass" were the waves that moved the ark around. Like Liam, he is an ark that it tossed about by the waves of life.
In addition to the daughters, he has an ex-wife (he is also a widow) and each of the characters literally come and go into his life/this story. And for no reason whatsoever.
The premise of the book--which is dropped for some reason--is that Liam goes to sleep in bed and wakes up in a hospital. At some point, a burgler broke into his home and Laim was beaten unconscious. And he can't remember what happened.
And no one seems to really care about his loss of memory--also, it symbolizes his loss of a memorable life. But about half way through, this whole theme is dropped--like it never happens.
Liam begins a half-hearted, painfully dull romance with a woman that goes no where. His daughters and ex-wife reappear. One friend comes to dinner.
Things fall apart with some of these relationships. He visits his father and stepmother.
And then the book is over. It's just painfully void of a "point" because Liam never changes--never grows--and a novel is about conflict and growth and it simply doesn't happen here.
Tyler's last book, the dreadful DIGGING TO AMERICA, started out with some real "energy" in the writing and characters, but lost steam early on and I ended up skimming the last 200 pages.
NOAH is an "easy" read but it's pointless. Not sure why she wrote this since characters are her strength.
Like the title, this book simply bobs along, going nowhere, until it ends.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Once again, Anne Tyler vaults us into her plot with a turning point in the main character's life. Liam Pennywell, nearly 61 years old but seemingly like an old codger, was downsized from his elementary teaching position and so downsizes himself into a smaller apartment. He rids himself of many possessions and sets up his new place with no sofa (no one apparently can sit close) but instead has chairs and basics for the final phase of his life. He is not sure what he wants to do; he really does not consider looking for new work or becoming more involved in his family. Surprisingly, he has three daughters from two previous marriages.
Liam has a brutal encounter on his first night in the apartment. Apparently, someone broke in and he found himself in a hospital bed the next day with absolutely no recollection of the vicious incident. He cannot remember and as he starts to obsess about finding his memory of that horrible event, it begins to impact his life. He becomes more aware of his sub-standard family dynamics with his daughters and grandson and has a sense of dreary hopelessness. Looking back at his marriages is scary stuff for this 61 year old man.
Tyler introduces a possible romance with a 38 year old unattractive woman who appears to be the antithesis of what Liam would consider suitable. The relationship with Eunice is sort of stuck into the plot as Liam grapples with his ethics and desires. Desperately trying either to wallow in sadness or move from the periphery of his children's lives, events are thrust upon him. One of his daughters moves in with him but no strong bond develops. His oldest daughter, Xanthe, is very angry with him but he never asks her why the relationship is stressed. Liam has a "glancing relationship with his own life."
I am a big fan of Anne Tyler. This is not her best book but she continues the theme that we do not find easy solutions and life usually is heartbreaking. Liam never argued with people's poor opinion of him; he simply agreed which brings on more sadness. Tyler makes me more aware of how simple things and people are really complicated. She remains the master of familiar and intimate narrative.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2011
Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors. In fact, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant could all take spots in the top ten. I wouldn't have thought that she was capable of writing a book that wasn't brilliant. And yet, here we are.
We've got all of the trademark Tyler setups in place. The odd job, The Rememberer, who wouldn't want one of those. The scattered family, and this one is more disconnected than most. The event, an amnesia-inducing blow from an amateur thief, and the sad reality of being a normal person and being alive for any amount of time. The ingredients are all there, but evidently someone slammed the door and the souffle fell, leaving us with a flat pancake of a tale.
The one thing that Tyler does, probably better than anyone else, is embedding the profound within the ordinary. Maybe that's where the problem with this book comes in. The main character is not, nor has ever been, engaged with his life. He knows it, and the ultimate payoff is that he is okay with this. Accepting that you are mediocre and not willing to change is a theme that, while probably pretty relatable for most people at some point in their lives, isn't exactly punching you in the face with profundity. Still, if anybody could have pulled it off, Tyler could have, and that's why the disappointment is greater than for a lesser author.
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2010
Well, I love most of Anne Tylers book, I really do. But some of her later attempts are falling flat for me. This book has some of her great odd-ball characters. Her writing is always touched with a bit of subtle humor. I was reading this book in bed, enjoying it tremendously when, umpf, suddenly it just ended. It was like she had nothing else to say, so she just quit writing. Reading an entire novel, no matter how much you enjoy the writing, to find it has no satisfactory ending is always a huge letdown. If you love Ms Tyler, then I guess you have to read it, like I did, but I would like to know if you agree about the non-ending.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Anne Tyler has written many gems in her prolific career, but this is not one of her best novels. It's hard to pin down at first blush why this should be so. All the ingredients of her winning formula are still very much intact.
For instance, Tyler still wields her strength in creating memorable characters who are ordinary yet quirky and precariously poised on the fringe of society, trying to balance the opposing desire for freedom and intimacy. That is very much apparent in her protagonist Liam, a sixty year-old newly-axed teacher, who discovers that he has merely been a spectator in his own life.
Tyler's treatment of Liam, who sure isn't perfect in his failed marriages and distant relationship with his three daughters, is nonetheless sympathetic (as she has consistently been with all her protagonists).
There are also various turning points and surprise moments in the story, but somehow, the plot and characters that appear are becoming all too familiar. For instance, Liam's motto to 'simplify, simplify' was also the theme (in almost exact phrasing) of an earlier novel, 'Earthly Possessions'. Liam's love interest, Eunice, resembles another key "school-marmish" character in 'Patchwork Planet' a tad too closely for me. After a while, I felt like I was watching a police line-up of characters from her previous novels.
That said, this review should not put off new readers of Tyler, as she still paints quite an accurate and moving picture of family and humanity.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I love Anne Tyler's style, the quirky little ideosyncracies that her characters possess, the normalcy of their lives, and especially their everyday speech and mannerisms. Noah's Compass has all this and a classic sweetness as well.
There is also something missing from the story - that power of her previous novels like "Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant" or the extremes of "The Accidental Tourist" that hit you in the gut with their insights into human nature. It is also the unfulfilled promise of an anticipated event - and the disappointment stemming from a character that was well-drawn and likable - then dropped from the story abruptly.
I did find the novel entertaining and still praise Tyler's many gifts for story telling.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I think Anne Tyler is incredibly talented (loved The Accidental Tourist and Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant) and I don't relish writing a poor review however Noah's Compass was truly not the caliber of her other novels. The book begins with an aging man who has lost his job and moves into a new apartment. The first night in the new place he is clonked on the head and his inability to remember the incident consumes him every waking moment. When he goes to a neurologist to hope for answers he encounters a pleasantly plump, eccentric, disorganized woman whose long mottled skirts slosh around her ankles and whose fat handbags drip with fringe and rattle with pills. This woman's job apparently is to follow around an elderly slightly senile man and help him remember. A rememberer!!!! That's what Liam needs! He needs this rotund strangely attired woman to solve his dilemma! I had high hopes that once Liam actually began to get to know this quirky creature that the novel would gain momentum and Tyler would give us something. Anything. But Liam's relationship with Eunice is like sitting in an airport waiting to board your plane. It's annoying. Insipid. Your seats too hard. It smells like nachos. A little child is squalling in the arms of the woman beside you and basically you want to get the hell out of there. Liam Likes Eunice a little. He also likes sitting in a rocking chair and staring at his trousers. I was hoping for some twists and turns and there are one or two surprises but basically the book never ceased to be monotonous and I was completely exhausted after reading it. Nonetheless, I will continue to read Tyler's novels because I do admire her writing and heck, everybody gets stuck in an airport once in a while. Just don't book this flight to nowhere.