Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

Ah, the simple pleasures of a new Anne Tyler novel. No one does family life better. Her families are so perfectly imperfect. They squabble and worry and muddle through things. They fall apart and come together. Noah's Compass (Knopf, 2010) is full of family complications. This time out, Tyler's protagonist is Liam Pennywell, a school teacher forced to retire at age sixty-one. Not that he ever really wanted to be a teacher anyway... He studied philosophy in college, and looks forward to getting back into his philosophy books. Liam simplifies his life by renting a smaller apartment in the suburbs of his native Baltimore.

On the first night he sleeps in his new apartment, he goes to bed early. When he wakes up he is in the hospital with a head injury, and can not remember how he got there. Apparently he left the patio door unlocked and an intruder entered and knocked him out, although curiously nothing was stolen. Liam has three daughters, and the youngest one, Kitty, comes to stay with him during his convalescence. She is seventeen and in love with a boy her mother doesn't approve of. Liam's ex-wife, Barbara and his other daughters Xanthe (a ranter) and Louise (a conservative Christian), as well as his grandson Jonah come and go from his apartment, and we the readers begin to pick up on the back history of the Pennywells.

Liam becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened the night he was attacked, and his research takes him into some surprising situations. He fabricates a job search and meets a middle-aged woman named Eunice who initially offers to help him with his resume, and they become romantically involved. Liam's loss of memory becomes a lens he uses to take stock of his life. Was he ever really present as a father and husband? Liam is well-meaning but bumbling, especially with women, of which there are plenty in his life. He rarely sticks up for himself when they criticize him, since he knows just how imperfect he is. I found him endearing.

Because he is rather a melancholy type, how enchanted I was when near the end of the novel, Liam bursts out laughing. In conversation with his daughter Louise, he recalls a family story about how his ex-wife gave away their Christmas tree, decorations and all, one Christmas morning when a neighbor suddenly had need of a tree. That Tyler can make me so happy just because someone laughs -- now that's my kind of fiction. Her characters become so real to me, it's always tough to reach the last page. I never want her books to end. No matter what direction Noah's Compass pointed towards, I felt very much at home.

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