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.
“Gracefully written tragicomedy...seasoned with poetic images [and] gentle humor.” USA Today
"An arresting premise [that] pays off in unexpected ways....Tyler’s writing is as lovely and transparent as ever." The Boston Globe
"Tyler’s most profound strengths lie in her ability to make her stories resonate with readers....With self-assurance and her trademark empathy, Tyler makes the commonplace uncommonly rich and the ordinary extraordinarily touching." Richmond Times-Dispatch
“A gripping, page-turner of a novel [that] radiates with life.” Houston Chronicle
“[Tyler] reminds us of the infinite reach of our humanity.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[A] sensitive, witty story.” The Washington Post
“[An] offbeat delight.” O: The Oprah Magazine
"Everyone loves Anne Tyler...and her 18th novel will doubtless supply another reason." San Francisco Chronicle
"Noah's Compass is immensely readable. It displays many of Tyler's finest qualities: her sharp observation of humanity, her wry comedy; the luminous accuracy of her descriptions....Her's is a fine-grained art, whose comedy could easily coarsen into the self-consciously quirky. If it does not, this is because her surprises are rooted in character: it is human nature that she evidently finds infinitely fascinating and surprising, with its constantly unforeseeable capacity for change....[A] novel by Anne Tyler is cause for celebration." Caroline Moore, The Sunday Telegraph
"Tyler reveals, with unobtrusive mastery, the disconcerting patchwork of comedy and pathos that marks all our lives." Michael Dirda, The Wall Street Journal
"Dazzling....A beautifully subtle book, an elegant contemplation of what it means to be happy." Elizabeth Day, The Observer, UK
"Fired from his job, Liam Pennywell moves into a small apartment and wakes up the next morning in the hospital with head injuries he can't explain. What turns out to have been an attack by a thief leads to unexpected grace, as Liam is forced to engage more deeply with his family and with a woman who finds him irresistible." More magazine
"Pure pleasure" Helen W. Mallon, Philadelphia Inquirer
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. Do you like Liam Pennywell as a person? Do you identify with him as a character? How?
2. Liam loses his job and moves into an efficiency apartment, thinking he doesn’t have much left to live for and that this final part of life is meant to be “the stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end” (p. 3) . Do you think this is an accurate reflection of Liam’s life at this point? Do you think most people his age and in his position feel similarly?
3. Liam has strained relationships with his daughters and his ex-wife, and blames himself for these circumstances. Do
you think he is right to do so? In what ways have the women in his life contributed to these difficult relationships?
4. How do you think each of his daughters would describe Liam?
5. Kitty becomes especially close with her father over the course of the novel, choosing to live with him over her mother at the end. Did this ring true for you as a reader?
6. What was your first impression of Eunice when Liam spotted her in the doctor’s office? Would you ever be tempted
to “[pay] someone else to experience your life for you” (p. 67), as Liam desires?
7. Do you think that Liam and Eunice make a good match? Why or why not? Does their age difference matter?
8. As you were reading the novel, did you ever suspect that Eunice was married? How did you feel when Liam discovered
this fact from Eunice’s mother?
9. Do you think that Liam should have tried to make things work with Eunice, or did he do the right thing by ending
things with her after he found out that she was married? Should he have just taken his “share of happiness,” as his
10. Eunice says to Liam that married people “go on being involved for all time even if they’re divorced” (p. 229). Do you think this is a true statement? Do you think Liam, Barbara, Eunice, and Eunice’s husband, Norman, behave this way?
11. The only time Noah is mentioned in the book is when Liam is babysitting Jonah and tells him the story of Noah’s Ark. Liam says that “ ‘Noah didn’t need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference’ ” (p. 220). How do you think this story relates to Liam’s own life?
12. Liam seems to regard his life largely as a failure, and comments to Barbara that “It’s as if I’ve never been entirely
present in my own life” (p. 263). Would you agree with Liam about his statement? To what degree do you feel present in your own life?
13. Liam thinks that: “We live such tangled, fraught lives . . . but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re
buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed” (p. 210). Liam is comforted by this thought; do you feel that way, or do you find this viewpoint depressing?
14. Memory, or the lack thereof, is a large issue for Liam. What do you think he is trying to achieve by recalling the
night of his break-in and any other memories that seem to have escaped him?
15. When Liam does have the opportunity to confront his attacker, he says no, even though he has longed for this
throughout most of the novel. Why do you think he decides not to pursue this? How has Liam changed between the night of the attack and the day when his attacker is identified?
16. Liam set out to be a philosopher, ended up as a fifthgrade teacher at a private boys’ school for most of his career, and became a Zayda at a nursery school after being fired from teaching. Do you think Liam would have been happier as a philosopher? In what ways has your life taken unexpected turns and how did you deal with them?
17. Did you like the ending of the novel? Did you feel that it satisfactorily answered everything?