Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’ — The End

Liam and Eunice were in the blush of romance, last we saw them. That didn’t last long, naturally. What “Noah’s Compass” needs is a little more love and a little less reality. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the details of the relationship’s failure. It was painful, and sad, and just plain disappointing. But you knew that.


“This was how little time it took, evidently, to grow accustomed to being with somebody,” Anne Tyler notes. It’s an observation she’s made in other books about alone people. The whole romance thing left Liam feeling undeservedly guilty, and hollow. But don’t go away! That’s not the end of the book, only the end of the romantic phase. Life goes on.

You might be wondering what role Noah played in the story.  Jonah, the grandson, brings on the biblical Noah for a cameo appearance. Jonah believed that Noah was responsible for the death of many animals, since he allowed only two of each on his boat. Where do four-year-olds get such ideas?  Was it a motor boat, or a sailboat, Jonah wanted to know. Liam had to tell him that Noah needed neither motor or sails, “because he wasn’t going anywhere.”

“There was nowhere to go. He was just trying to stay afloat.” Liam said. And so on.

Liam retreats to his apartment, “a haven of solitude,” to sit in his armchair for days. In an introspective flashback, Anne Tyler narrates Liam’s long decline from promising scholar to unemployed fifth-grade teacher. Each step along the way is a step down.

I think Ms. Tyler is laying it on a bit too thick when she demotes Liam, a man with a long career in teaching, to a sort of teacher’s aid in a preschool for three-year-olds. The children have unquestioning trust in Liam. But of course the young teacher, whom he assists, finds Liam a bit lacking. Naturally.

I’ll leave the story there.

If you’ve never read Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with Noah’s Compass. Start with Accidental Tourist, or Breathing Lessons, or Ladder of  Years. They are stories of daily life and loss, but those books offer flashes of humor, hope and forgiveness.  In Noah’s Compass, there is nothing but sorrow and rejection. And failure. Liam does not resist. His saving graces are humility and acceptance.

Some would argue that Anne Tyler has something to say here about happiness. If so, it is a subtle and muted happiness.

— John Hayden


9 thoughts on “Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’ — The End

  1. Hi John,
    I enjoyed reading this very much. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Anne Tyler’s novels. Sounds like I have something to look forward to. I usually read more books when the days are short, but this year I haven’t found a story that holds my attention.
    Liam had a piece of my heart right away. Your review is so good it makes me want to read the novel, but I’ll take your advice and start with a different one.


  2. Hi John,
    Great! I’ll check out your other blog. I imagine I’ll be able to find her novels in the library. I may have read, “Accidental Tourist,” but sometimes I forget the books I’ve read until I either hear a little about them or I see the book. Fortunately the memory returns. Same thing happens with movies.

    As to her being, “a national treasure,” I’m not surprised I didn’t know that. I’ve been thinking about writing what I was learning, while most of my peers were getting a normal education in areas like history and literature. This idea came as I pondered on how little I knew about JFK’s life after you mentioned him having been in a lot of pain. I had to go read about him, which was fun, but also quite moving.

    My mom told me that the chair he sat in was made in a factory near our hometown.

    I thank you for the inspiration and ideas for reading.

    With well wishes,


    • Thanks, Michelle. “Accidental Tourist” and several of Anne Tyler’s other novels have become popular films. There’s more humor in “Accidental Tourist” than in most of her books.

      BTW, your Dogkisses is a wonderful blog!



      • Hi John,
        I haven’t made it to the new library yet, but I was in the thrift shop the other day looking at books and about the third one I saw was, “The Accidental Tourist.” So far, I don’t remember reading it, so I’m on my way. I also discovered that Anne Tyler is from my state.



  3. Yes, amazingly, I do remember the movie, “Accidental Tourist,” but I think I also read the book. I will not know this until I see the cover or read the first few lines.

    Thanks for the compliment on my blog. I think my posts are way too long. I need to work on that.



  4. Michelle,

    Re your Feb. 3 comment, “Anne Tyler from my state.” That must be either North Carolina or Georgia. I believe she was originally from one of those states. She has an interesting bio — eventually she settled in Baltimore.

    As I remember, “Accidental Tourist” gets off to a slow start. The first 30 pages or so are a plodding conversation during a car ride in the rain. The pace picks up after that, and the book has a lively, romantic plot, with a lot of humor. Added attraction, for those who know or have an interest in Baltimore, Ms. Tyler provides telling portraits of two very different Baltimore neighborhoods, and their residents.


    • Yes, you are right John, she is an interesting person. She grew up in Raleigh, NC, which is my home state, after moving there from Minnesota in 1941. She also studied at Duke.

      I’m not too far into the book yet, only pg 27. I keep finding things to do, such as dishes and then I get tired.

      I visited Baltimore once about 15 years ago. I recall it was hot and humid, but we went out at night and had lots of fun and good food. We went to a district with Irish pubs and lots of drinking and dancing.

      You have an excellent memory! Wow. I couldn’t even recall if I had read the book. I look forward to reading the story.


  5. I’ve read far and wide, but don’t think I’ve ever read Anne Tyler and my remembrances of The Accidental Tourist were of the slow parts you allude to. Maybe it’s time to add her to the list! Thanks for the nudge.


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