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Noah's Compass

Cover of Noah's Compass

Noah's Compass

A Novel
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From the incomparable Anne Tyler, a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.

Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is--well, something quite different.

We all know a Liam. In fact, there may be a little of Liam in each of us. Which is why Anne Tyler's lovely novel resonates so deeply.


From the Hardcover edition.
From the incomparable Anne Tyler, a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.

Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.

His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is--well, something quite different.

We all know a Liam. In fact, there may be a little of Liam in each of us. Which is why Anne Tyler's lovely novel resonates so deeply.


From the Hardcover edition.
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    In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn't such a good job, anyhow. He'd been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys' school. Fifth grade wasn't even what he'd been trained for. Teaching wasn't what he'd been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don't ask. Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well that he had seen the last of St. Dyfrig's dusty, scuffed corridors and those interminable after-school meetings and the reams of niggling paperwork.

    In fact, this might be a sign. It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage--the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.

    He had a respectable savings account and the promise of a pension, so his money situation wasn't out-and-out desperate. Still, he would have to economize. The prospect of economizing interested him. He plunged into it with more enthusiasm than he'd felt in years--gave up his big old-fashioned apartment within the week and signed a lease on a smaller place, a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex out toward the Baltimore Beltway. Of course this meant paring down his possessions, but so much the better. Simplify, simplify! Somehow he had accumulated far too many encumbrances. He tossed out bales of old magazines and manila envelopes stuffed with letters and three shoe boxes of index cards for the dissertation that he had never gotten around to writing. He tried to palm off his extra furniture on his daughters, two of whom were grown-ups with places of their own, but they said it was too shabby. He had to donate it to Goodwill. Even Goodwill refused his couch, and he ended up paying 1-800-GOT-JUNK to truck it away. What was left, finally, was compact enough that he could reserve the next-smallest-size U-Haul, a fourteen-footer, for moving day.

    On a breezy, bright Saturday morning in June, he and his friend Bundy and his youngest daughter's boyfriend lugged everything out of his old apartment and set it along the curb. (Bundy had decreed that they should develop a strategy before they started loading.) Liam was reminded of a photographic series that he'd seen in one of those magazines he had just thrown away. National Geographic? Life? Different people from different parts of the world had posed among their belongings in various outdoor settings. There was a progression from the contents of the most primitive tribesman's hut (a cooking pot and a blanket, in Africa or some such) to a suburban American family's football-field-sized assemblage of furniture and automobiles, multiple TVs and sound systems, wheeled racks of clothing, everyday china and company china, on and on and on. His own collection, which had seemed so scanty in the gradually emptying rooms of his apartment, occupied an embarrassingly large space alongside the curb. He felt eager to whisk it away from public view. He snatched up the nearest box even before Bundy had given them the go-ahead.

    Bundy taught phys ed at St. Dyfrig. He was a skeletal, blue-black giraffe of a man, frail by the looks of him, but he could lift astonishing weights. And Damian--a limp, wilted seventeen-year-old--was getting paid for this. So Liam let the two of them tackle the heavy stuff while he himself, short and stocky and out of shape, saw to the lamps and the pots and pans and other light objects. He had packed his books in small cartons and so those he carried too, stacking them lovingly and precisely against the left inner wall of the van while Bundy singlehandedly wrestled with a desk and Damian...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine Like Noah in the flood, Tyler's protagonist, Liam Pennywell, is a likable, unmoored figure. Having lost his job at 60, he feels too old to search for another, too young to retire. Arthur Morey offers a Liam whose pleasant voice grows on listeners; he makes us care for this unambitious man who thinks more eloquently than he speaks. Morey capably narrates passages that showcase Tyler's humorous observations, set like gems among pitch-perfect conversations between Liam and those who make up his world, including acquaintances, daughters, and an ex-wife. Morey portrays a variety of memorable characters, though his fretful-sounding voicing of Liam's girlfriend may take getting used to. Listeners drawn into this quirky, intimate narrative will be quite willing to overlook such a small detail. J.C.G. (c) AudioFile 2010, Portland, Maine
  • San Francisco Chronicle
    "Everyone loves Anne Tyler . . . and her 18th novel will doubtless supply another reason."
  • Caroline Moore, The Sunday Telegraph "Noah's Compass is immensely readable. It displays many of Tyler's finest qualities: her sharp observation of humanity, her wry comedy; the luminous accuracy of her descriptions . . . Hers is a fine-grained art, whose comedy could easily coarsen into the self-consciously quirky. If it does not, this is because her surprises are rooted in character: it is human nature that she evidently finds infinitely fascinating and surprising, with its constantly unforeseeable capacity for change . . . [A] novel by Anne Tyler is cause for celebration."
  • Michael Dirda, The Wall Street Journal "Tyler reveals, with unobtrusive mastery, the disconcerting patchwork of comedy and pathos that marks all our lives."
  • Elizabeth Day, The Observer, UK "Dazzling . . . A beautifully subtle book, an elegant contemplation of what it means to be happy."
  • More magazine "Fired from his job, Liam Pennywell moves into a small apartment and wakes up the next morning in the hospital with head injuries he can't explain. What turns out to have been an attack by a thief leads to unexpected grace, as Liam is forced to engage more deeply with his family and with a woman who finds him irresistible."
  • Helen W. Mallon, Philadelphia Inquirer "Pure pleasure"
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