In Carly Eccles Sheaffer’s Compass Rose, a pivotal, life-altering stroke of chance occurs inside a travel agency. In this unassuming place—which today feels like an echo from the past—a handful of lives rearrange themselves around a reunion of two souls separated by fate. That juxtaposition of the meaningful over the mundane provides the texture of this lovingly spun debut novel, which charges unassuming spaces with rich emotional currents of grief, guilt, and joy. Through characters drawn together by memory and a rich depiction of hope’s power to heal, Compass Rose provides a much-needed balm for the unresolved heartache and chaos of a brutal year.
Sheaffer’s story, the second publication by Bound to Brew and the featured book for November 2020, traces dual paths alongside Shaun and Annie, early-twenty somethings who at first glance share little in the way of experience or upbringing. Shaun is the eldest child of a family in small-town North Carolina whose picturesque life rests on bonds more fragile than he can know. Annie comes from privilege, a college student with a sharp, overbearing mother who exerts a firm grip on Annie’s path. Staving off parental expectations while battling her own uncertainty about her future, Annie seeks out friendship from the Murray family after a chance meeting with Shaun’s father. Their idyllic life opens for Annie. Against her parents’ bleak plans for her future, the Murray's are warm and inviting, and as Annie learns to tend rosebushes on their property, a powerful love blossoms with Shaun.
These foundations are well-supported by Sheaffer’s obvious sense for crafting characters who elicit compassion. Shaun and Annie are drawn first as individuals, then as partners. The romance feels genuine, the natural product of two reactive elements placed together in space and time. But its honesty persists when heartbreak arrives to upset the fledgling life these two begin together. An illness forces cold reality upon the couple, and a painful separation shatters the future both characters felt so sure was theirs.
Compass Rose balances this plot, told through the lens of memory, with a more immediate telling of the reunion in the travel agency. Set years later, the meeting highlights the power—and powerlessness—of time and grief, which set both Annie and Shaun on an unlikely path back to each other. The intervening time is marked by loss for both parties, and also by change: Shaun has a daughter, and Annie’s parents are left outside the frame.
As the story unfolds between the past and the present, Sheaffer unleashes torrents of feeling through her frank prose and sense of narrative timing. Confidently paced but never rushed, the novel explores how passion is inextricably tangled with pain, and illuminates the hidden battles that, for better or worse, eventually end up defining us. Sheaffer’s tale paints a striking contrast between lives of its two main characters, pulling them apart as though to prove the resilience of a bond that, once forged, can never truly be severed.
It’s there that you’ll find the greatest strength of Compass Rose, the fiber that holds it together as a satisfying story of tragedy and enduring love. Though its characters are sometimes divided by fate, this is a novel that wants you to see the ways in which people remain connected through heartbreak, the power of truth and forgiveness to overcome regret and loss. Even during its most painful moments—which Sheaffer fills to bursting with emotion—there beats a tender heart aching for hope and reconciliation.
Readers of romance fiction are sure to appreciate this book’s passionate telling, and seekers of literary fulfillment will find depths to mine in Sheaffer’s excellent characterization and creative structure. In a year desperate for a hopeful ending, Compass Rose arrives just in time.