Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler (2009)

This year I’ve been joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for most of the novels I own and hadn’t read yet. I’ve discovered a few terrific new-to-me ones: Earthly Possessions, Saint Maybe, The Amateur Marriage … but there have also been some slight duds. Alas, this one falls into the latter category. A Tyler novel is never less than readable, but a habit that I find irksome is on show here, and she’s used this story template more successfully before.

In 2006, Liam Pennywell is forced to start a new life at age 60. After being laid off from his private school teaching job, he downsizes to a smaller apartment further out from central Baltimore. On his first night in the place, he’s assaulted by a would-be burglar and wakes up in hospital with no memory of the lost hours. As he tries to piece together what happened, his three daughters, grandson and ex-wife flit in and out of his life, tutting at his bachelor ways and later disapproving of his budding relationship with a much younger woman.

The focus on a hapless male trying to do better is a familiar setup for Tyler (Saint Maybe, The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, The Beginner’s Goodbye, and Redhead by the Side of the Road, at least – have I missed any?). Liam especially reminded me of Michael in The Amateur Marriage: they feel they have been sleepwalking through life and wish they had appreciated it more and shaped it more through their decisions. As Liam says at one point, “It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.” Dating Eunice is his only bid for freedom and happiness. But, in the book’s most memorable scene, a visit to his elderly father is a revelation to Liam: he never wanted to be like this man, but accidentally almost was.

Much as I enjoy sinking into a Tyler novel (the closest I come to a ‘guilty pleasure’ read?), I get exasperated with the way she includes an ostensibly momentous event that doesn’t actually matter much, or only insomuch as it sets up the plot. (Clock Dance is the worst offender in this respect.) There is a suicide in the background, but the assault and memory loss soon fade into the background, to be replaced by well-worn, breezy dysfunctional family happenings. The title, from a Sunday school-based conversation Liam has with his grandson, is cute and meaningful in context – about a drifting life in search of direction – but won’t help as an aide-mémoire for the story. The same goes for the twee cover image on my Vintage paperback.

So, a rather forgettable one – which, unfortunately, has largely been my experience of Tyler’s later work (with the exception of the punchy Shakespearean fun of Vinegar Girl). But you can do much worse than pick up one of her paperbacks on a sunny afternoon.

See also Liz’s review. She’s as lukewarm as I am on this one. (Secondhand purchase from Thatcham Library sale trolley)

My rating:


The 16 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Saint Maybe

The Amateur Marriage

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Earthly Possessions

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Back When We Were Grown-ups

Clock Dance

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Noah’s Compass

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder


The only unread Tyler I have remaining on my shelves is A Patchwork Planet, which I started in July but didn’t get far with. I’ll try it again another time. And there’s not long to wait now for her NEW novel, French Braid, coming out in March. (Even though I’m sure she announced in 2015 that she was retiring, we’ll have had four novels since then.) The other one that this readalong project has piqued my interest in is Celestial Navigation. I don’t think I’ll bother with her first four novels, which she’d like to see struck from the record. Morgan’s Passing and Searching for Caleb I’m unsure about. Should I find them very cheap secondhand, I’d probably have a go.

10 responses

  1. I enjoyed A Patchwork Planet and Caleb but didn’t much like Morgan’s Passing as it just hasn’t aged well. I’m glad you were lukewarm about this one, too – makes me feel better about being so myself! It was an old trope and nothing seemed to happen really at all, did it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was relieved to find you felt the same!

      I’ll look out for Caleb and Celestial, then 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right. Tyler is usually a reliable read. But I don’t know this one. And after your review, I doubt if I ever shall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With 20+ novels to choose from, you’ll definitely find a better one 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t know she isn’t a fan of her first four novels. I have read Slipping Down Life and If Morning Ever Comes. Rated them 2 and 3 stars, respectively. I think you’re safe if you never come across them at a shop. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it was in an interview I read that was included in the back of my Amateur Marriage paperback. She said if she could recall those four, she would!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow… almost finished. Good for you. Yes, this one was a bit less successful than some I’ve read.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ve just said the same thing on Liz’s blog, but I quite liked this one. I was reading it on a daily commute and I enjoyed the sense of the rote and everyday. Maybe I wasn’t AS attached to him as some of the characters in her other books, but somehow she makes me want them to be happy. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now, is the Canadian “quite” the equivalent of an English or an American “quite”, I wonder? It’s one of the most useful distinctions I ever learned, from a Julian Barnes essay collection: the English version means “somewhat”, whereas the U.S. means “very”. A pretty different connotation!


      1. Interesting! I’d say “we” tend more to the US meaning, but it’s true that I do choose to say “quite” rather than say that I liked it “very much”. So I suppose that I am slighting poor Noah somewhat after all. 😛 Maybe Naomi will see this and weigh in, so that we can settle out, together we two, how the entire nation views ‘quite’. Heheh


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: