A Review by Janet Elfant
To understand my love of Anne Tyler, one might first want to understand my more than 30 year-old association with my much beloved mother-in-law. My mother-in-law is an artist who burned most of the food she cooked and then threw the burnt pans out off the deck. When involved in a project, she sometimes forgot to pick up her children at school and they would hike the four or five miles home in whatever weather Connecticut had to offer for that season. Yet when the "pet" donkey swallowed her youngest child's arm (he had been offering it a treat) and everyone was running around wondering what to do, my mother-in-law picked up the nearest log and hit the donkey over the head which surprised him so much that he opened his mouth and let Patrick's arm out.
Ann Tyler writes about people like my mother-in-law. Every book she has written has contained characters with various clouds of eccentricity yet each character is treated with kindness and respect in her rendition. Liam Pennywell, the main character in Tyler's most recent novel, Noah's Compass, is a philosopher, downsized to a history teacher, downsized to unemployment. He has survived two "failed marriages" resulting in three daughters with whom, in the beginning of the book, he has minimal contact. In his attempt to downsize his life, he relieves himself of most of his possessions and moves into a modest concrete apartment complex on the other side of town. An intruder enters through his unlocked porch door during the night of Liam's first sleep in the apartment and causes enough physical harm that Liam is taken to a hospital. Upon awakening, Liam has no memory of the burglary which causes him extreme distress. Liam has lost a night of his life. That loss sets the scene for the rest of the novel. What is played out for the next 200 pages are the questions of who we are, who we have been, and who we have left to be. Ann Tyler is always a surprise with her answers.