(Jump down to read a review of The Dive From Clausen's Pier)
"Songs Without Words"
(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk JAN 13, 2008)
“Back in John’s room, she closed the door and turned off the overhead so that the only light came from the small reading lamp on the bedside table. She made her way to the window. There were a few lights here and there, but the one she saw, the one she couldn’t avoid, was the one directly across the street, the light shining from the room that had once and for so long, belonged to her parents. That room seemed to be the whole of her view from here. It was to that room that she had the most often gone to find her mother, in bed at nine in the morning, at noon, late in the day. It was from that room that she had so often heard her mother, weeping or shrieking. And it was in that room that she had last seen her mother, on a warm spring morning eighteen months ago, when she had poked her head in as usual to say she was leaving for school. Her mother’s dark head had not moved from the pillow, but she had raised her hand, and sometimes, even now, Sarabeth wondered what that gesture had meant: goodbye, or go.”
Songs Without Words, Ann Packer’s follow-up novel to the book-club favorite bestseller The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, once again showcases the many strengths Packer possesses as a writer. With a keen and compassionate eye, she lays bare the nature of female friendships: their vitality, their trappings, and their malleability in the face of tragedy. She stays grounded in realism and relies on tragic and potentially tragic events to give the narrative heft. If you are interested in reading about two ordinary middle-aged, middle-class women struggling to stay friends in Northern California in 2007 (the setting and time are rendered with relentless accuracy), then Songs Without Words fulfills what you might expect from an Ann Packer novel. For the rest of us, however, Songs Without Words is a song without urgency. There are no choruses, no refrains, and no surprising movements. In other words, Packer’s strengths lie only in the notes, not the music, the words, not the drama.
As teenagers, Liz and Sarabeth were close friends, brought even closer by Sarabeth’s mother’s suicide. Decades later, their friendship ebbs and flows, strained by the differences of their adult lives (Liz is a married well-off suburban mother of two; Sarabeth sells lampshades and is single with a taste for married men). Packer misses numerous opportunities to make Liz and Sarabeth’s class inequities consequential to their friendship. Instead, she chooses to focus on who’s calling who first and which party is hurt by the other and so on. It’s somewhat unclear why their differences matter and how the story would differ if both women were suburban mothers.
When Liz’s daughter, Lauren attempts suicide, Liz and Sarabeth’s friendship gradually unravels and predictably, connections are made between their tiff and Sarabeth’s mother’s suicide. Two other point-of-views are also interspersed throughout, that of Lauren and Liz’s husband, Brody. While Lauren’s struggle with depression is affecting, Packer’s insistence on keeping her ordinary characters ordinary robs Lauren’s situation of any danger. Sure enough, all’s well that ends well when Lauren decides to go to art school and her suicide attempt is more or less forgotten. As for Brody, he contemplates marital happiness, considers flirting with a pretty young thing or two, and returns home in time to drive Liz to Sarabeth’s so they can resume their friendship.
All of the characters lack what the novel lacks – dramatic urgency and a moral point-of-view. The details of 2007 Northern California are dead-on: the Expo and IKEA do reside in East Palo Alto, there is an Andronico’s supermarket in Berkeley, and the nearby mall does indeed contain a Brookstone and a Starbucks like countless others. But readers may ask Packer why those particular details matter and to what end?
And finally, now that it’s 2008, with Songs Without Words so rooted in the mundane and the ordinariness of the 2007 middle-class, will readers still think that this ballad of Liz and Sarabeth is relevant even a year from now?
- Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews
Read an excerpt from Songs Without Words at Borzoi Reader(back to top)
"The Dive from Clausen's Pier"
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran JUL 09, 2002)
The main character of the story, Carrie, a recent college graduate, finds herself vaguely dissatisfied with her fiancé, Mike. He senses her coolness. During a Memorial Day picnic, he dives into a lake in a silly bid for her attention and breaks his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. It does sort of remind you of those After-School Specials that used to run on TV in the late 1970's although author Ann Packer takes us much beyond the initial story line, delving far into the young woman's journey of forgiveness and self-discovery. The first five pages of the novel detail the accident; the reader views the time immediately preceding the accident with all senses operating. This sets up a tremendous contrast with the ensuing days with Mike initially in a non-responsive state. I generally dislike novels that start off with the pivotal scene, how can you feel anything for a character when all you know of them is trauma? In this case, the author manages to convey a sense of history in just a short page or two.
Mike eventually emerges from the coma, forcing Carrie to confront her feelings for him. Packer renders the hospital scenes with exquisite detachment. "Visiting hours were three PM to eight PM, ten minutes per hour, two people at a time, but it seemed we'd no sooner get in to see him than the nurses would ask us to leave. It was, as if, merely body now, he belonged to them." We come to be familiar with terms like halo and low quad just as Carrie does. Throughout the book her tone is neither mawkish nor indulgent, it's more one of rawness as we see Carrie progress from horror and revulsion to pity, escape, and finally a degree of acceptance.
Carrie agonizes, "How much do we owe the people we love? How much do we owe them? ... What I had discovered was that I couldn't give up my life for Mike--that's how I saw it at the time, that's the choice I thought I had to make. And because I couldn't give up everything, I also thought I couldn't give up anything." The book pulses with questions of duty versus desire, adulthood versus adolescence, East Coast sophistication versus Midwestern charm. Carrie manages to work her way through all these existential dilemmas and more. She flees her hometown of Madison, ending up in the arms of a casual acquaintance, an older man she knows only as Kilroy. The two embark on an all-consuming sexually charged relationship. Her attraction is initially based on finding him a kind of anti-Mike, mysterious, disdainful, and psychologically elusive. Maybe a little bit like the father she can't remember. With Kilroy she finds, "The sky was a blue I'd never seen before, hard and cold, with edges that could be cut. Smells emanating from restaurants attached themselves to individual ingredients with startling specificity: melted butter, grilling lamb, cumin in tomatoes, cilantro, frying salmon." As the novel progressed, the relationship started to make me squirm, Kilroy evolved more into a father confessor than a boyfriend.
Packer keeps the pace moving, convincingly exploring the world of those teetering on the brink of adulthood. Her dialogue is oftentimes witty, despite the heavy subject. In conversation with her best friend Jamie, Carrie says,
" . . .why do we always have to talk about guys? That's boring. I mean, here we are, we're smart, we must have something more we can talk about. Politics or books or the weather or something."
"How about men," she joked, but she looked hurt.
"Men are just guys with bad haircuts."
When she's not being witty, Packer pushes her reader to contemplate difficult themes. Carrie confronts the issue of how far can one escape one's upbringing. Kilroy sneers at people who aspire to be things, artists, writers, poets, other than what they are. They should be who they are, although figuring that out is more difficult than it seems. Packer turns up the suspense as the novel progresses, leaving no real clues as to how the story will end. The end does ring true to the rest of the story, which like life, is ragged and messy, but ultimately satisfying.
- Amazon readers rating: from 418 reviews
Read a chapter except from The Dive from Clausen's Pier at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Mendocino and Other Stories (1994)
- The Dive from Clausen's Pier (April 2002)
- Songs Without Words (August 2007)
- Swim Back to Me: Stories (April 2011)
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- Official website for Ann Packer
- Identity Theory interview with Ann Packer
- Beatrice Interview with Ann Packer
- Reading Group Guide to The Dive from Clausen's Pier
- Salon.com review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier
- The New York Times review of The Dive from Clausen's Pier
- Reading Guide for Songs Without Words
- MostlyFiction.com review of Swim Back to Me
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About the Author:
Ann Packer was born in Stanford, California, in 1959, and grew up near Stanford University, where her parents were professors. She attended Yale University and then, after five years working at a publishing company in New York, she went on to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, selling her first short story to The New Yorker a few weeks before receiving her degree. A fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing followed, and she spent two years living in Madison, Wisconsin, which would later become the setting of her first novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier.
Packer is a past recipient of a James Michener award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other magazines, as well as in Prize Stories 1992: The O. Henry Awards. She received a Great Lakes Book Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award for The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, a national best seller that has been translated into ten languages.
She lives with her family in San Carlos, California.