three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
By: 
Anne Tyler
user_rating: 
0

A-NoahsCompassNoah’s Compass is Anne Tyler’s 18th novel.

The Story: Noah’s Compass is the story of 60-year-old Liam Pennywell, a fifth grade teacher at a third-rate private school who once aspired to be a philosopher. Widowed from his first wife and divorced from his second, Liam has little contact with his three grown children. After he is fired from his job, which he hated anyway, Liam downsizes to a depressing little apartment and is burgled on his first night. When he wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the attack, Liam begins to reevaluate his past and present, and gains startling insight into his disappointing life.
Knopf. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307272409

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Fans of the Pulitzer Prize winner will instantly recognize Liam as another of Tyler’s deeply repressed, inarticulate characters, and will want to embrace this ‘puddle of a man.’ Others will just want to wallop him upside the head." Yvonne Zipp

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"It is extremely difficult to make a passive character come across as interesting, but once again Tyler pulls it off by giving the reader access to Pennywell’s complex inner life. … In fact, the disjunction between his inner thoughts and his outer complacency drives much of the book’s humor." Helen W. Mallon

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"That violent act is the trigger for this sensitive, witty story about a man who’s forced to realize he’s not dead yet—he’s not even out to pasture." Ron Charles

USA Today 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s risky terrain to build an entire novel on a passive sad sack who feels ‘as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.’ … Read this book patiently, more for style than plot." Bob Minzesheimer

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Characters are plausibly drawn but also (in Tyler’s trademark style) as bland as the canned soup and Cheerios they eat. … [S]o generic did Tyler’s characters feel that it created (for me) a kind of claustrophobia." Joan Frank

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]his one devolves into a predictable and highly contrived tale of one man’s late midlife crisis. … [T]he complete implausibility of that story line makes for a flimsy and unsatisfying novel, a novel quite unworthy of this gifted author’s talents." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Tyler delves into familiar territory with Liam Pennywell, whose passive demeanor and thwarted ambitions will be instantly recognizable to loyal fans. Most critics described Noah’s Compass as intimate, elegant, and unexpectedly humorous. On the other hand, several critics felt that Liam was too understated, and that both the protagonist and the storyline could have used a generous shot of testosterone. Overall, however, most agreed with the Christian Science Monitor critic, who stated, "The action in Noah’s Compass is as muted as its hero, but its drab, meandering exterior hides something profound."

About the Author

Anne Tyler, who rules cheerfully over the ordinary and familiar, writes stories all readers can relate to. For a tale about family tensions and battles, start with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Tyler’s first best-selling novel and her own favorite. If you’ve ever gotten in a rut and wanted to break your routine, The Accidental Tourist, her best-known book, will show you the way—sort of. And Breathing Lessons depicts a 28-year-long marriage, with all its ups and downs.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. When Anne Tyler was just starting to write Noah’s Compass, a journalist asked her what it was about. She replied, “I’d like to write about a man who feels he has nothing more to expect from his life; but it’s anybody’s guess what the real subject will turn out to be in the end.” Did that turn out to be the real subject of the book?

2. What does the title mean?

3. After reading the first chapter, did you have any idea where the story would lead?

4. On page 26, Tyler writes, “The distressing thing about losing a memory, he thought, was that it felt like losing control.” Why is Liam so interested in control?

5. Is this really the first memory he’s lost?

6. At the top of page 49, Liam thinks about his true self, and how it seemed to have disappeared after the incident. What does Liam consider to be his “true self”? Is he right?

7. Why does Liam become so obsessed with Ishmael Cope?

8. Discuss Liam’s attitude toward women. Does he treat his blood relatives differently from Barbara and Eunice? Why or why not?

9. Why does Liam’s initial impression of Eunice transform into something completely different? Why does he keep their relationship a secret from his daughters?

10. What does religion represent in the novel?

11. On page 186, Eunice insists, “I’m not . . . devious, Liam!” What does she mean by this? Does she actually believe it?

12. What does the palm-reading scene on page 204–5 tell us about Liam? What point is Tyler making?

13. Reread Barbara’s description of Liam on page 224. Is it accurate? Why or why not?

14. Ultimately, why does Liam turn Eunice away, soon after telling her, “You’re the woman I love, and life is too short to go through it without you!” (page 230)?

15. When does Liam stop wishing he could remember the break-in? Why?

16. On page 243 Liam wonders, “Why was it that he had known so many sad women?” How would you answer this question?

17. What is the meaning of the Epictetus quote on page 266? What does Liam intend by reciting it?

18. Discuss the ending. Is Liam happy?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.