Noah’s Compass is an inconsequential little slip of a novel, but it’s written so well that it goes down easily enough. The entire course of the plot becomes fairly obvious 50 pages in, but that isn’t always a bad thing, and Anne Tyler portrays the characters distinctively enough that spending time with them is mostly enjoyable. Nobody’s life will change because of Noah’s Compass—as Tyler seems to be hoping with some of the novel’s late moralizing about missed opportunities—but it can also be polished off in one sitting, which is relatively rare.
Noah’s Compass is an old-man novel—a book about a guy who reaches the end of his career and begins to look back over the course of his life and realize just how little he’s been engaged with the world around him, his family and friends. Protagonist Liam Pennywell realizes how little he’s been engaged with all three, leading to lots of rumination on how the people in his life have been affected by his presence, or more often, his absence.
Often, old-man novels feature a prominent subplot in which said old man embarks on a somewhat torrid affair with a woman significantly younger than him who feels underappreciated in her day-to-day life, so when Liam runs into a dowdy, bespectacled thirtysomething named Eunice at his doctor’s office, much of the rest of the novel is as nicely laid out in front of readers as if Tyler had written a Cliffs Notes-style summary preceding the narrative. She tosses a couple of twists and turns in there, but nothing readers won’t see coming far ahead of time.
But that seems to be a substantial portion of what Tyler is going for. The very universality of Compass is part of what makes it work. Everybody has moments when they wonder just what their life is adding up to, and Tyler captures those feelings of uncertainty in Liam’s inner monologues, his longing for a chance to go back and reverse some of what went wrong. Tyler’s characters also come together in a surprisingly believable community, as she finds ways to tighten the inner circle around Liam as he wakes up to just how much he’s drifted past everyone in his life. A late passage where Liam remembers his first marriage, which ended tragically, is particularly moving, as he considers anew all of the moments he tried to forget.
There’s nothing in Noah’s Compass that hasn’t been done a million times before, and often far better. (See Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for an exemplary example of the old-man novel done right.) But Tyler is a strong enough writer to keep her rambling little story rolling along, never letting any of the individual vignettes and episodes overstay their welcome. In a weird way, its very unoriginality becomes the literary equivalent of dropping in on old friends unannounced.