Rated Reads

Noah’s Compass

by Anne Tyler

Rated: Mild

Liam Pennywell, age 60, has just been laid off from the private school where he has taught for years. Rather than try to find something new at this late stage of his life, he has decided that he can retire. While he has sufficient savings and retirement income, he still needs to economize, so he decides to downsize into a smaller and simpler apartment. The morning after he moves in, however, he wakes up in a hospital room with bandages on his head and his hand. His oldest daughter tells him that he was the victim of a break-in and got hit on the head.

Most disconcerting for Liam is not that he was hit on the head by an intruder, but that he cannot remember it. Every bit of his memory is intact except for the attempted robbery (the thief didn’t take anything, most likely because Liam owns nothing of value), and this bothers him a great deal. His daughters and ex-wife all think they would prefer not to remember something this scary, and don’t know why in the world he wants to remember.

Liam goes home and tries to figure out how to recover his memory. In visiting a neurologist whose son he had taught years before, he doesn’t get any help. But Liam observes a rich man in the waiting room who has an assistant to help him remember things, and he can’t shake the (probably irrational) idea that this “rememberer” could help him, too.

As he then tries to figure out how to get this woman to help him, Liam stumbles into more than he bargained for. His simple life gets a little shakeup, and he finds himself not just involved with a new person, but more involved in his daughters’ lives as well.

Anne Tyler’s books are always about characters who are very average and live mostly mundane lives. They are a bit quirky, but always familiar. And they always find themselves in surprising situations that throw them out of their comfort zones. Noah’s Compass is no different. Its protagonist is unremarkable and disconnected from the lives of his ex-wife and three daughters, two grown and one teen. He is befuddled by the situation in which he finds himself and just muddles through. Liam grows over the course of the book, but, also true to form for Tyler, he doesn’t find a perfect “happy ending.”

Tyler’s books can be moving, gently humorous, and sometimes exasperating. They are all about their characters. Some pack bigger emotional punches than others. Noah’s Compass is fairly short and not quite as … filled out, somehow, as some of her others, so it packs less of a wallop. It is less ambitious than The Amateur Marriage, for instance, which had a much larger depth and breadth in its time span, in its cast of characters, in its messages. Noah is simpler and keeps to a short time frame and minimal cast, and it shows. Taken on its own, this latest Tyler novel is satisfying and well done, but it does disappoint a little bit for those who may expect more.

Rated: Mild, for some language and very mild, brief sexual references.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

One Response to Noah’s Compass

  1. […] I can’t count exactly how many Anne Tyler books I’ve read, but I’m guessing it’s about eight  (I read Breathing Lessons in a college class and then went through a spurt of reading more of her work). I read The Amateur Marriage when it first came out and just re-read it for my book club, and I still believe it is one of Tyler’s best (a couple that have been published in the intervening years just didn’t seem up to snuff to me, including Noah’s Compass). […]

  • Noah’s Compass
  • by Anne Tyler
  • Rated: Mild
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: