Saturday, January 23, 2010

Currently Reading ... Noah's Compass

Noah’s Compass is Anne Tyler’s new novel.

Before reading further, please note that there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead!

Liam Pennywell, a teacher in his early sixties, decides to economize by moving to a small apartment after he’s downsized out of a job. He goes to bed on his first night in his new digs … and awakens in the hospital, after being attacked in the night by an unknown assailant. Although his other memories are intact, Liam remembers nothing about the assault. His doctors assure him this is normal, and his friends and relatives ask, “Why would you even want to remember that?” But Liam becomes increasingly obsessed by his memory lapse. He feels something essential about himself--a pivotal moment, perhaps--has been stolen from him.

Liam encounters someone who employs a professional assistant--a “rememberer”--who prompts him with names and assists him through transitions in his day. Convinced that he, too, needs a “rememberer” to help him recover his memory of the assault, Liam becomes a bit of a stalker, lurking in his car, hoping for a glimpse of the assistant. When an opportunity arises, Liam introduces himself to Eunice, improvising a fictitious connection to her employer. Eunice, a quirky, socially awkward, and impulsive young woman half Liam’s age, jumps to the conclusion that Liam needs her help with developing a resume. Their relationship quickly progresses: from acquaintances to friends, and from friends to lovers. Although this is kind of weird (and Eunice is unbelievably annoying), it’s rather sweet. But there’s a big problem, one that can’t be resolved. Eunice has been lying to Liam--she’s married. Though he’s not religious, and is in fact divorced, Liam believes in the sanctity of marriage. So they break up, and … yeah. That’s it, pretty much. Liam gets a job at a preschool, and presumably goes on living a stark, pared down existence in his stark, pared down apartment. Alone.

The best thing about this novel is its characters. Anne Tyler is brilliant at finding just the right words to describe people’s personalities, their quirks, and their foibles. Even if you’ve never met anyone remotely like the people in her novels, you find yourself nodding, feeling that you really know them. Liam, Eunice, Liam’s impatient older daughters, his opportunistic-but-nice teenage daughter (who moves in with him), the teenage daughter’s questionable boyfriend, Liam’s ex-wife, his small grandson who’s been spoon-fed bible stories from an early age … all these people leap to life on Tyler’s pages, making me feel I would recognize them instantly if we met on the street.

What I didn’t like so much--first, the repetitiveness. We’re told again and again about how disturbing Liam finds his memory loss, to the point that I wanted to yell, “All right, already--I get it.” There seemed to be a lot of this sort of redundancy, belaboring the same point over and over. Eunice is a fashion disaster ... yeah, yeah. Got it. Liam's been emotionally absent from his family for years, and has few friends ... yup, got that, too. I almost felt like Tyler was insulting my intelligence, assuming I was profoundly slow on the uptake.

Secondly, I disliked the unsatisfying ending--see above.

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