BOOK: Anne Tyler specializes in hapless characters, simple, ordinary people who can't quite seem to get the hang of life. In 1985's The Accidental Tourist, her protagonist, after a disorienting divorce, stumbled into love almost in spite of himself, and presumably lived happily ever after. In her new novel, Noah's Compass (Knopf, $25), a similar protagonist, Liam Pennywell, doesn't do so well in the love department, but seems to arrive at a fresh appreciation of his quiet and uneventful life.
At the age of 60 Liam finds himself alone with three grown daughters hovering around him. Recently laid off — permanently — from a job teaching fifth grade, Liam plans to spend his long, empty days curled up with thick books by beloved philosophers. A mild, passive man who doesn't even own a TV, Liam can see himself becoming "one of those men who die alone among stacks of yellowed newspapers and dried-out rinds of sandwiches moldering on plates." But a brush with violence launches him into an exploration of his newfound freedom, including an awkward and ill-fated romance with a woman half his age.
WHY READ? Tyler has a way of taking the reader into the mind of her central character, revealing how life looks through the eyes of someone who may seem a bit peculiar to the rest of us. Liam, maddeningly meek and unassuming, seems incapable of criticizing others, much less getting angry, and he remains oddly disengaged from his world. (His daughters and his sister refer to him as "Mr. Magoo.") But his gentle heart and mild manner foster an outlook on life that many readers would do well to emulate. Tyler's novel may seem like an anti-adventure, with ordinary people involved in mundane activities — helping a friend move, babysitting, having lunch with a friend — but she understands that the inner life of seemingly uninteresting people can be enormously rich, complex and exciting.
MAKE IT: Liam is a vegetarian, but when his sister brings him a pot of beef stew he doesn't protest, resolving instead to silently pick out the pieces of meat. In honor of his preference, a discussion of Noah's Compass would pair well with a spicy vegetarian chili that adds fire and flavor to unassuming vegetables.
TAKE IT: Noah's Compass, like most of Tyler's novels, is set in Baltimore, and one of the few signature dishes of that city is the Baltimore pit beef sandwich. You can mimic it by buying some spicy sliced roast beef at the deli counter of the grocery store and serving it with a loaf of rye bread accompanied by chopped onion, tomato, horseradish and mayonnaise.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.