A number of years ago, I saw a quirky little film called The Accidental Tourist with Geena Davis and William Hurt. I learned that the film was based on a novel by Anne Tyler who also won the Pulitzer for her novel Breathing Lessons. Over the years, her name would pop up on my radar occasionally; however, I never put forth the effort to read any of her novels. I saw her most recent novel, Noah’s Compass, in the “new” section at the library and decided I should give it a try. I’m glad I did.
Liam Pennywell, a 60 year-old divorced, philosophy-major-turned-grade-school-teacher forced into retirement moves to a smaller apartment to embrace what seems like the final part of his life. Throughout the novel, he looks back on his two failed marriages and the relationship with his three daughters while contemplating a relationship with a younger woman. Liam is the kind of person in which it seems like life happens to him as opposed to him making life happen.
Tyler’s ability to present the power in ordinary and mundane people and circumstances amazed me. Liam, his second ex-wife, Barbara, his daughters, Xanthe, Louise and Kitty, and his younger love-interest, Eunice, are not likable characters. At first glance they range from boring to downright irritating. But through the grumblings of an old man and his reluctant willingness to both accept his lot in life and finally make some things happen, Tyler creates characters that are so real it’s at times painful.
The title of the novel comes from Liam’s conversation with his 4 year-old grandson, Jonah. Jonah’s parents have become fundamental Christians much to Liam’s irritation. While he’s watching Jonah for his daughter, they discuss Noah’s ark as the result of a picture in a coloring book. When Jonah doesn’t understand how the ark could move or be steered, Liam explains that the ark didn’t need to move or be steered or even know what direction to travel as the entire world was water. In similar fashion, Liam hasn’t seen the need to steer his life or determine what direction to move. At one point, he recalls Dean Martin being asked about a party in which Martin asks “Did I have a good time?”. He then asks Barbara, in a discussion about his life in general, “Did I have a good time?”. Barbara doesn’t quite get the question.
At certain times during the novel, I wanted to dislike it. It seemed so depressing on the outside. Perhaps it’s because there’s a little bit of Liam in myself and while I don’t consider myself close to his age, I’m a lot closer than I used to be. Tyler’s brilliance keeps the story from simply being a “life has no meaning” story. She brings a depth and a hope and a life to a character who, in his own words, has “never been entirely present in his own life” and she does this without emotional heart-string tugs to manipulate the reader.
I’ve read a few professional reviews of this novel and found them to be mixed. My thought would be that if this novel gets mixed reviews, I can’t wait to read her better ones.