Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

March 16, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Liam Pennywell is a 60-year-old teacher who has been forced to retire early when the mediocre private school he works at decides to combine their two fifth-grade classes into one. Liam looks upon the event philosophically–which makes sense since his degree is in philosophy. How he ended up teaching history to fifth-graders is anyone’s guess.

Upon retiring, Liam moves into an apartment in a rundown complex. He’s on a limited income now, and must spend as little as possible. He settles in to sleep on his very first night in the new place–and awakens in a hospital bed, completely unaware of how he got there. It turns out Liam was attacked in his apartment, though he has zero recollection of the incident or the intruder.

This memory loss disturbs Liam to the point of obsession. Now that he needs to be taken care of to a certain degree, his estranged family reenter the picture, including ex-wife Barbara, daughters Kitty, Xanthe, and Louise, as well as grandson Jonah and Kitty’s boyfriend Damian. All these people flit in and out of Liam’s apartment, bossing him around, putting him down, and generally treating him like a doormat. He lets them.

Then Liam meets Eunice, a 38-year-old woman who intrigues him because of her job. She’s an assistant to Ishmael Cope, a wealthy real estate mogul with neurological problems of his own. Eunice is employed as Cope’s “rememberer” or external hard drive. It’s her job to supply Cope with names, dates, and other details that otherwise might escape him at important meetings. Liam wishes Eunice could do the same for him–only backwards so he can remember what happened on the night of the attack.

For some odd reason, Liam and Eunice end up having an affair. It’s a very shallow affair that involves little more than shared meals, kissing, and hugging, but it’s an affair nevertheless. Liam contemplates spending the rest of his life with Eunice, but is thrown for a loop when he finds out she’s married. From there, he has to learn to stand up for himself and take his life in a new direction.


  • The part about Eunice being married already was a nice little twist. That was completely unexpected and took the story in a new direction.


  • If you’re gonna write a character study, you damn well better have an interesting main character. But Liam Pennywell is anything but. He’s a plodding, dull, lifeless old man who never has an original thought and barely comprehends anything anyone says to him. He’s also one of those people who maddeningly repeats what has just been said, like this:

    Eunice: “Should we have dinner now?”
    Liam: “Dinner? Um, well… ok.”

    Kitty: “Dad, can I borrow your car to go to mom’s?”
    Liam: “My car? Well, maybe I can just take you later because if you get into an accident, my car insurance premium might go up.”

    And on and on, throughout the entire book. God, he was so stupid and annoying, and not the least bit sympathetic. I didn’t care what happened to him. In fact, by the end, I was actively hoping that he would just die of a heart attack or something.

  • Liam was so bland that I had a hard time believing that Eunice would want anything to do with him — even if she was the lonely, loser housewife she was made out to be. I mean, they didn’t even get to know each other at all! One half-assed meeting about a fake resume, and Eunice was ready to have an affair? Whatever! The age difference could be overlooked if there was a reason to overlook it, like good looks, wealth, or power. Liam had none of those things, and was socially inept to boot. Why would any woman, let alone one 22 years his junior, want anything to do with him?
  • The first part of the book where Liam was obsessed about remembering the attack rang false as well. You don’t need to be a damn neurosurgeon to know that sometimes people forget the details surrounding a traumatic head injury. Why would Liam press the issue? It made zero damn sense. Also, thinking that an outsider like Eunice or any other “rememberer” could improve the situation was absolutely ridiculous.
  • I didn’t like Liam at all, but even I thought his family was filled with shrewish women who berated him for no good reason. Why did he just sit there and let everyone walk all over him like that? Who wants a friggin’ doormat as a main character? Seriously, this guy had no redeeming qualities at all. He couldn’t even stand up to his 17-year-old daughter? Yeah, right.
  • I couldn’t stand how Tyler had the four-year-old grandson speaking in full, grammatically correct sentences. The kid couldn’t even shrug his shoulders the right way, but was capable of fully expressing himself in conversation with Liam? What was he, a genius or something? Kids of that age can have conversations, but they don’t sound like Jonah did in this book.


Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler had very little going for it. The main character was a drag, the plot was nonexistent, and the supporting characters were selfish and uninteresting. Perhaps at 36 I’m a bit young for Tyler’s intended audience? I have no idea, but the bottom line is that I didn’t connect with this book at all. I give it 2 stars out of 5.

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