Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
Hardcover, 277 pages
Knopf Doubleday, 2009 copyright
released Jan 5, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780307272409
Very highly recommended

From the incomparable Anne Tyler, a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.

Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is-well, something quite different.

We all know a Liam. In fact, there may be a little of Liam in each of us. Which is why Anne Tyler's lovely novel resonates so deeply.
My Thoughts:

Noah's Compass is a character study about life's missed opportunities. It basically covers a single summer, from the end of one school year to the beginning of the other in the life of Liam Pennywell, age 61 years old. Liam has been forced into early retirement from teaching. He decides to downsize and move to a new apartment. After he goes to bed on his first night in the new apartment, he wakes up in a hospital with no memory as to how he got there. Liam decides that he needs a "rememberer" - someone who can help him remember. Noah's Compass is also, in part a love story, but not the kind of love story you would anticipate.

Anne Tyler is a brilliant writer who has penned yet another winning, gentle tale that is at times bittersweet, humorous, and achingly realistic. Tyler excels at character studies that have the reader sympathizing with off-beat, awkward people and their families, who usually reside in Baltimore. Tyler has the ability to write a perfect description, dialogue, and thoughts as we follow Liam's reconciliation with the final part of his life. The title refers to the Biblical Noah, who had no compass. He was just trying to stay afloat, which is how Liam feels he has lived his life.
Very Highly Recommended


In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job.It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't even what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don't ask. opening

Still, he would have to economize. The prospect of economizing interested him. He plunged into it with more enthusiasm than he'd felt in years - gave up his big old-fashioned apartment within the week and signed a lease on a smaller place, a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex out toward the Baltimore Beltway. pg 3-4

This is it he thought. The end of the line. And he felt a mild stirring of curiosity.
Then he woke up in a hospital room with a helmet of gauze on his head. pg. 11

Any second now an explanation would occur to him. There had to be one. He had fallen down some stairs or he'd been in a car wreck. But when he searched his mind for his last available memory (which took a distressingly long moment), all he could find was the image of going to sleep in his new apartment. pg. 14

"A sixty-year-old man," Xanthe said, "who can still move all his belongings in the smallest size U-Haul."
"Next smallest," he murmured.
"Whose so-called car is a Geo Prizm. A used Geo Prizm. And who, when he gets hit on the head, nobody knows where his people are." pg. 19

The distressing thing about losing a memory, he thought, was that it felt like losing control. Something had happened, something significant, and he couldn't say how he'd comported himself. He didn't know if he'd been calm, or terrified. or angry. He didn't know if he'd acted cowardly or heroic. pg. 26

The smell of vinegar persisted. It seemed to emanate from his own skin. He asked Kitty over supper (canned asparagus soup and saltines), "Do I smell like vinegar to you?"
"I keep thinking I smell like vinegar."
She fixed him with a suspicious stare and said, "Do you know what year this is?"
"Stop asking me that!"
"Mom told me to. It's not my idea."
"Half the time I don't know what year it is anyhow," he said, "unless I take a minute to think. The years have started flying past so fast that I can't keep track. You'll see that for yourself, by and by." pg. 45

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