More than two decades have passed since John Casey published his National Book Award-winning novel Spartina (1989). In Compass Rose, Casey returns to Rhode Island and to the increasingly complex life of fisherman Dick Pierce.
The Story: The love affair between crusty fisherman Dick Pierce and his independent-minded neighbor Elsie Buttrick is no secret in the small coastal town of Sawtooth Point. When Elsie gives birth to a daughter, Rose, residents of the insular community know full well who the child's father is, including Dick's wife, May, and their two teenage sons. In Compass Rose, Casey follows the young girl as she grows into adolescence and explores the three women who exert the greatest influence on her life: Elsie, who may not be cut out for motherhood; Mary Scanlon, who teaches Rose to love music; and May, who struggles with her feelings for her husband's daughter.
Knopf. 368 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780375410253
NY Times Book Review
"Like the love affair that is the novel's magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy ‘both ferocious and serene,' moments that bubble up, collapse and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place." Dominique Browning
"Much of the enjoyment of this novel is derived from the unobtrusive skill with which Casey charts the entanglements, convergences, repulsions, and compromises of life in a close-knit community. It is at its best, however, in its examination of Elsie's intelligent and sometimes impulsive, demanding, assertive but self-questioning nature." Matthew Peters
"Though the plot is a bit overcluttered--Casey has stuffed it with deaths, land grabs, scandals, mother-daughter feuds--the characters shine so brightly that it's easy to forgive a little narrative excess." Tina Jordan
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[A]n old-fashioned comfort food novel. It moves at an ambling pace, told in an easy-going storyteller's voice." Brigitte Frase
"There is a reason why it takes John Casey more than 20 years to bring forth a new novel: He thinks about it. It is in that distillation of his thoughts and refinement of his style that the story is brought to vibrant life." Valerie Ryan
San Francisco Chronicle
"The splintered structure makes for a book that has a lot to say but trouble finding a way to say it. Thankfully, Casey is a brilliant observer: The way he describes the development that inexorably takes over Sawtooth Point makes a reader feel impotent with rage, and his descriptions of nature are breathtaking." Lauren Groff
The New York Times Book Review described Spartina as "possibly the best American novel ... since The Old Man and the Sea." Casey's sequel, as a result, has a lot to live up to. Whereas Spartina focuses on Dick, Compass Rose centers on Rose and the women who influence her. His depictions of coastal Rhode Island are still wonderfully evocative, as are his observant renderings of small town life and extended family relationships. Only the San Francisco Chronicle felt the multiple protagonists resulted in a "splintered structure" and an "unfocused" narrative. Although critics disagreed over whether Compass Rose rises to the heights of Spartina, they all agreed that it was well worth reading, though best preceded by a reading of the latter.
Also by the Author
Spartina (1989): National Book Award. Dick Pierce, a Rhode Island fisherman, pins his hopes of survival on finishing his 50-foot fishing boat, Spartina, as he struggles to help his family and to find his place in the world.