Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Like Tyler's previous protagonists, Liam Pennywell is a man of unexceptional talents, plain demeanor, modest means and curtailed ambition. At age 60, he's been fired from his teaching job at a 'second-rate private boys' school' in Baltimore, a job below his academic training and original expectations. An unsentimental, noncontemplative survivor of two failed marriages and the emotionally detached father of three grown daughters, Liam is jolted into alarm after he's attacked in his apartment and loses all memory of the experience. His search to recover those lost hours leads him into an uneasy exploration of his disappointing life and into an unlikely new relationship with Eunice, a socially inept walking fashion disaster who is half his age. She is also spontaneous and enthusiastic, and Liam longs to cast off his inertia and embrace the 'joyous recklessness' that he feels in her company. Tyler's gift is to make the reader empathize with this flawed but decent man, and to marvel at how this determinedly low-key, plainspoken novelist achieves miracles of insight and understanding." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Everyone loves Anne Tyler, and her 18th novel will doubtless supply another reason. Wry and affectionate, Noah's Compass reads quickly, in language so plain and simple it carries the aura of a folktale." San Francisco Chronicle
"Reading Anne Tyler's 17th novel reminded me of my neighbor's legendary Maryland crab soup: pure pleasure going down. And as with the soup, the long-term rewards lie in trying to figure out how she did it." Philadelphia Inquirer
"This is an arresting premise and it pays off in unexpected ways....Tyler's writing is as lovely and transparent as ever..." Margot Livesey, The Boston Globe
"Noah's Compass...is one of Tyler's more deceptively rich [novels]....By the end of the novel, the particulars of Liam's life really haven't changed that much, but he is utterly transformed. And so will be the reader." Kirkus Reviews
"Working at her characteristically leisurely pace, Tyler poignantly portrays one man's search for wholeness and redemption as he picks up the shards of a life shattered by the crashing waves of aging....Another winning effort by Tyler..." Library Journal
From the incomparable Tyler comes a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher who has been forced to retire at age 61, who must suddenly come to terms with the final phase of his life.
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler’s subtle, deeply empathetic, and richly rewarding new novel.
About the Author
Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is her eighteenth novel. Her eleventh, Breathing Lessons, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Reading Group 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?