Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Seeking North


Noah's Compass
by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is one of a small group of fiction writers (also including Richard Russo and Barbara Kingsolver) who seems incapable of writing a bad novel. I've been enjoying her work for about 20 years now and always enjoy her achingly accurate portrayals of family dynamics and relational ambiguities. Although I doubt that she will ever top her Pulitzer winner Breathing Lessons, which blew me away in 1989, she seems to understand the usually unarticulated (even to ourselves) sorrows that lie within every human heart. That is not to say that we do not love our spouses, our children, our friends - but who has never felt isolated in the midst of a crowd? Who does not long to be understood and forgiven? That is what Anne Tyler seems to "get" and express so simply yet so profoundly.

The protagonist of Noah's Compass, Liam Pennywell, is one of her more poignant characters. I have seldom run into a character in fiction who is this isolated, yet Liam reminded me of a lot of people I know and have known in my own life. He is a twice-divorced man in his early fifties who has recently been "downsized" out of his teaching job and does not quite know what to do with himself. He has three young adult daughters, and as much as he wants to make connections with them, he so often seems to miss the mark. His life is fairly colorless - sometimes this bothers him, but mostly he doesn't mind. He is very much a man of routine, and although he is lonely he often shies away from relationships because he does not want too many demands made on him. He can be a frustrating character, but he is one to whom I was strangely drawn.

The gift of Noah's Compass is that we get to experience Liam's tentative forays into connection with others, and even watch as some of them do not turn out so well. By the end of the story, though, he also has had some small but significant successes in forming new relationships and healing some old ones. It struck me as a realistic portrayal of humanity - we take some risks, and sometimes things go well and sometimes they do not. Regardless, we are usually enriched by having made the effort. Liam has to learn that the hard way.

Noah's Compass is not action packed, and sometimes the reader gets impatient with Liam, who is a bit of a plodder. However, there are several interesting minor characters who liven things up along the way. By the end you will still ache for Liam, but also have some hope for him. We are all redeemable, after all.

Reverent Reader

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