I’ve been friends with Anne Tyler for years. Only she doesn’t know it.
As far back as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I have felt at home in her kitchens, living rooms and Baltimore neighborhoods. In her characters I see myself and people I know.
In Noah’s Compass, Tyler’s 18th novel, I met Liam and Eunice, two profoundly harmless characters. Most reviewers have focused on Liam’s life and how it didn’t go as he had planned. What plan? Any guy who started out as a philosophy major in college wasn’t laser-focused on timetables, plans and career tracks. But young Liam Pennywell had ambition all the same. The untimely death of his first wife left him so grief stricken and disengaged that he wandered around in a daze though parenthood, a second failed marriage and an undistinguished teaching career. He liked movies, for example, because he could “watch people’s conversations without being expected to join in.” Then he got hit on the head and met Eunice. Literally. In Tyler Country, Eunice was a typical citizen: frumpy but well meaning.
The concept of a compass was the book’s focus in my eyes. One of Liam’s daughters, a fundamentalist Christian, declares that people without formal religion (specifically hers, of course) lack a moral compass. We see by the end how evolved Liam’s moral compass is. He did the right thing even though it broke his heart. Even in his daze, he was never without his moral compass. The title came from the bible story of Noah’s Ark. Liam told his grandson that Noah didn’t need a compass or a rudder since the Ark didn’t have a destination. Liam had a late-in-life opportunity to reflect on his past, chart his own future and open himself up to the possibility of a different life. He was no longer without a rudder. He realized he had memory issues: he had been trying to remember the wrong things.