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