My mother used to have an expression she trotted out whenever she saw a particularly geekish or unattractive couple: “I know there’s a god.” She wasn’t religious, and clearly didn’t mean it that way. What she meant was, “Isn’t it nice that there’s someone for everyone and even so-called losers find their match?”
I thought of this while reading Anne Tyler’s 18th novel, Noah’s Compass, an offbeat, bittersweet love story about life’s missed opportunities, because Tyler is a champion of the so-called loser. With the notable exception of her last novel, Digging to America, which dealt with issues of immigration and American identity, Tyler’s focus has been on awkward, shy, lonely, often mismatched people, mostly residents of Baltimore, who all become remarkable and uncommonly sympathetic under her wry but gentle scrutiny.
Whether she’s considering the conflict between domesticity and freedom or tracking a single day in the life of a couple who love each other through 28 years of basic incompatibility — as she did in her 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner, Breathing Lessons — a central element of many Tyler novels is her characters’ unsettling realization that their life hasn’t gone the way they had hoped. It is not uncommon for a Tyler character to not just think about the road not taken but to veer off track and take it. In her ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, (1982) Beck Tull deserts his wife and three children. In her 13th, Ladder of Years, (1995), Tyler’s 40-year-old heroine walks away from her husband and three children while on vacation. Back When We Were Grownups opens with the line, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
Noah’s Compass is about a man who has somehow lived the wrong life because he never fully engaged with anything or anyone. When Liam Pennywell, a schoolteacher, is forced into early retirement at 60, it propels him in new, not altogether comfortable directions. Look how easy it is to slip into an Anne Tyler novel:
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.
Note that colloquial, good-natured, tone-setting “anyhow” and “Oh, don’t ask.” They alert us that this guy, Liam Pennywell, is not a fighter but rather is easily resigned, passive, even fatalistic — a characterization Tyler reinforces in all that follows. He’s a man with “a fondness for routine” whose “policy [is] not to argue. (An infuriating policy, his daughters always claimed.)”
After getting the axe at work, Liam enthusiastically takes a hatchet to his expenses, downsizing his very existence: “It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage — the final stage, the summing-up stage.” His new apartment, across the highway from a mall, is barebones and charmless, but he settles in contentedly for the first night of the rest of his life there. When he wakes up in a hospital “with a helmet of gauze on his head,” he’s as mystified as we are, and Tyler has us totally hooked.
Liam has no recollection of how he landed in the hospital, and this memory gap — more than the loss of his job, more than the loss of his first wife to postpartum depression and his second to divorce, more than the loss of connection with his three daughters — is what finally makes him feel out of control. It also leads to a harsh reassessment of his past:
How could he have ended up so alone? Two failed marriages (for he had to count Millie’s death as a failure), three daughters who led their own lives, and a sister he seldom spoke to. The merest handful of friends — more like acquaintances, really. A promising youth that had somehow trailed off in a series of low-paying jobs far beneath his qualifications. Why, that last job had used about 10 percent of his brain!
Note how the exclamation point deftly expresses Liam’s exasperation but lack of real anger.
Gradually, we watch his narrowly circumscribed life expand — though with minimal encouragement or effort on his part. His flaky 17-year-old daughter, Kitty, comes to live with him to escape her overly restrictive mother, Barbara, whom she describes as “this, like rule-monger. Nit-picker.” His fundamentalist Christian middle daughter periodically drops off his somber grandson, Jonah, with a coloring book of Bible stories. Discussing Noah and his Ark, Liam explains that Noah didn’t need sails or a compass because he wasn’t going anywhere but was just trying to stay afloat. The parallel with Liam, bobbing rudderless in the sea of his life, is beautifully implied.
An unlikely life preserver and soul mate surfaces in the form of Eunice Dunstead. Obsessed with his missing memory, Liam is first drawn to Eunice because of her job as a personal assistant who serves as a sort of “hired rememberer” or “external hard drive” for a successful developer who’s losing his power of recall. Despite being “plump and frizzy-haired and bespectacled, dumpily dressed, bizarrely jeweled, too young for him and too earnest,” Eunice is increasingly beguiling to him as they connect.
With delightful, comic precision that is reminiscent of an Alan Ayckbourn farce, Tyler orchestrates the giddy comings and goings of Liam’s outspokenly critical daughters, ex-wife, and sister, all of whom think he’s a hopeless loser, as they repeatedly interrupt his improbable budding romance. Even in less antic, more somber moments, she maintains a light touch and captures the texture of family interactions with vivid details.
Yet just when we’re cueing in my mother’s “I know there’s a god,” Tyler pulls a fast one on us. It turns out she’s more interested in the ramifications of broken marriages — Liam’s, and his parents’ — than in the happily-ever-after. Are we surprised? We shouldn’t be. The absent parent and the question of whether one person’s happiness justifies hurting another have been recurrent themes in her fiction. Noah’s Compass is yet another reminder that we should never, ever underestimate Anne Tyler: she’s nimble, she’s wise, and she’s as deep as those biblical floodwaters.