Anne Tyler – Noah’s Compass
I love Anne Tyler. I was first introduced to her in 1991 when a friend raved about her book The Accidental Tourist which he read in school. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to get her books from the library. (I guess if I really ‘love’ her like I say, then I would buy her books, rather than borrowing them from the library.)
Anyway, I was in the library a couple of weeks ago and I came across her latest book, Noah’s Compass. I was thrilled as I was not expecting to find any as-yet-unread Anne Tyler books on the shelf let alone a new one!
The protaganist this time is 60-year-old Liam Pennywell, a widower and a divorcé from (surprise, surprise) Baltimore. He has three daughters from these two marriages, the youngest of whom is 17 years old. His second wife and he had Kitty as a last effort to save their marriage. Stay with me here because all this information is important.
The story starts off with Liam being fired from his teaching job. He decides to take an early retirement – he is, after all, already 60 years old – and, in an effort to economise, moves into a small apartment. After all the busyness of moving in, he goes to bed…and wakes up in the hospital with a concussion. And he has no memory whatsoever of what caused him to end up there.
Liam then goes on a quest to try to regain his memory of the assault. He comes across Eunice, who happens to be a personal assistant to Ishmael Cope, a wealthy Baltimorean businessman. Mr Cope is getting on in years and needs someone to help him with remembering things. Liam starts to think of Eunice as a ‘hired rememberer’ and wonders if she can help him remember.
Liam seeks Eunice out and asks her questions about her work. Eunice, on her part, is flattered that a man is so interested in her. She is under the impression that Liam is seeking employment with Mr Cope and spends time with him helping him with his résumé. Almost immediately, both she and Liam start seeing each other.
Now comes the part in the book I wonder why neither Anne Tyler nor her editors picked up. In chapter 7, Liam gets around to asking Eunice how old she is. The answer is that she is thirty-eight. Liam then reminisces and the book says:
When Liam was thirty-eight he already had three children. His second marriage was already behind him, and he’d started to feel his whole life was behind him.
Whoa! Wait a second. If Liam is 60, and his youngest daughter is 17, that means that she was born when he was 43 (or 42). (In fact, at one point in the book, we are told that his wife had Kitty at age 45 and in another part of the book that she is a couple of years older than Liam. ) At age 38, he would only have had two daughters and he and his wife would still be together. This is such a glaring mistake I am truly confounded it was not detected before it went off to be printed.
Here is another mistake. Liam’s first wife died thirty-two years ago, leaving him with an almost two-year-old. This makes the oldest daughter, Xanthe, thirty-four years old. Xanthe is 17 years older than Kitty. When Liam’s second marriage falls apart shortly after, his wife takes all three girls to live with her. When Kitty decides that life with her mother, Barbara, is too unbearable, she begs Liam to let her live with him. When Xanthe finds out this, she is upset and says,”…you never let me live with you! And I was just a child! And you were all I had! I was way younger than Kitty is when you and Barbara split up.”
Uh, wrong again. Xanthe was the same age as Kitty is now when Liam and Barbara split up.
That said, the book is very typical Anne Tyler. It explores the complexities of relationships and how people cope with change. Anne Tyler has a very good ear for the way people talk and this is one of the reasons why her books really come alive for me. When I am reading her books, I forget that it is ‘just a story’. I really feel that I am reading about real people, real events, conversations that really happened, etc.
But, I have to say, these anachronisms in Noah’s Compass kind of ruined it for me. It jarred me and made me think that this book is really ‘just a story’. And that is a disappointment.
Update – 2 November, 2010
I was in the library and came across a different edition of Noah’s Compass. Out of curiosity, I looked up the relevant chapter and was surprised to see that it was different!
When Liam was thirty-eight he already had two children. His first marriage was already behind him, and he’d started to worry that his second marriage was also behind him.