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Songs without Words: A Novelby Ann Packer
Synopses & Reviews
Ann Packer's debut novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, was a nationwide bestseller that established her as one of our most gifted chroniclers of the interior lives of women. Now, in her long-awaited second novel, she takes us on a journey into a lifelong friendship pushed to the breaking point. Expertly, with the keen introspection and psychological nuance that are her hallmarks, she explores what happens when there are inequities between friends and when the hard-won balances of a long relationship are disturbed, perhaps irreparably, by a harrowing crisis.
Liz and Sarabeth were childhood neighbors in the suburbs of northern California, brought as close as sisters by the suicide of Sarabeth's mother when the girls were just sixteen. In the decades that followed — through Liz's marriage and the birth of her children, through Sarabeth's attempts to make a happy life for herself despite the shadow cast by her mother's act — their relationship remained a source of continuity and strength. But when Liz's adolescent daughter enters dangerous waters that threaten to engulf the family, the fault lines in the women's friendship are revealed, and both Liz and Sarabeth are forced to reexamine their most deeply held beliefs about their connection. Songs without Words is about the sometimes confining roles we take on in our closest relationships, about the familial myths that shape us both as children and as parents, and about the limits — and the power — of the friendships we create when we are young.
Once again, Ann Packer has written a novel of singular force and complexity: thoughtful, moving, and absolutely gripping, it more than confirms her prodigious literary gifts.
"Packer follows her well-received first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier, with a richly nuanced meditation on the place of friendship in women's lives. Liz and Sarabeth's childhood friendship deepened following Sarabeth's mother's suicide when the girls were 16; now the two women are in their 40s and living in the Bay Area. Responsible mother-of-two Liz has come to see eccentric, bohemian Sarabeth, with her tendency to enter into inappropriate relationships with men, as more like another child than as a sister or mutually supportive friend. When Liz's teenage daughter, Lauren, perpetuates a crisis, Liz doubts her parenting abilities; Sarabeth is plunged into uncomfortable memories; and the hidden fragilities of what seemed a steadfast relationship come to the fore. Packer adroitly navigates Lauren's teen despair, Sarabeth's lonely longings and Liz's feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Although Liz's husband, Brody, and other men in the book are less than compelling, Packer gets deep into the perspectives of Liz, Sarabeth and Lauren, and follows out their conflicts with an unsentimental sympathy. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Ann Packer has been looking in our windows. The majority of readers of contemporary literary fiction in America — especially fiction written by women — are women themselves, and in her new novel, 'Songs Without Words,' Packer has tapped into the things that worry many of these readers: love and satisfaction in their relationships, the emotional and psychological health of their... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) offspring, the terrible possibility of spiritual and familial dissolution. 'Songs Without Words' describes a childhood friendship tested by the challenges of adult lives that bear the friends along separate paths. Packer solidifies the reputation she established in the enormously successful 'The Dive from Clausen's Pier' as an uncannily observant chronicler of contemporary American domestic life. 'Songs Without Words' touches every nerve exposed by the solidly middle-class dilemmas of today's parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and lovers. There are no wars or plagues here, no suicide bombers or political turmoil. Instead, there is the fraught landscape of suburban life with its troubling questions about marriage, parenthood, friendship and fulfillment. Packer is no ironist; she is not Claire Messud or Zadie Smith, whose most recent novels unspool under the cool panoramic gaze of a social critic. The characters in Packer's novels are not so much exposed as they are understood — understood and seen, in all the psychological sense of that word. Packer is devoted to her characters, and it is her pleasure as a novelist — and ours as her readers — to watch these people move through the intensely familiar and intimate hours of their days and nights, spooning coffee into the Krups, taking a bath, crawling into bed. Packer follows them from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom (and to the car and the grocery store and Starbucks and the mall), and her pursuit is so unnervingly attentive that it becomes revelatory. Middle-of-the-night readers — and there will be lots of them — who cannot put down 'Songs Without Words' will surely look up at the darkest hour with the sense that they are being watched. The first paragraph of the novel is one of those lovely moments in fiction when a writer conjures in just a few sentences, with just a few images, the entire universe of the story that is about to unfold. The scene feels both like a presage of things to come and, in its quiet, painterly composition, like a metaphor — of what, at first, we are not exactly sure, of course, but the world Packer evokes here is the familiar beauty-crossed-with-loneliness of the suburban evening. (Countless writers have been drawn to this moment, most famously perhaps James Agee in the opening scene of his novel 'A Death in the Family'). Here is Packer's beginning: 'Each evening, the streetlights came on at dusk, and the view out the window changed, from barely glowing kitchens and TV rooms to the houses that contained them, and to the trees that sheltered the houses. It seemed to Sarabeth that for a little while there was a kind of balance out there, an equilibrium. But then, quickly, darkness came down from the sky, and soon the lit rooms returned to prominence, and finally everything else was black, and the world seemed limited to a few bright windows on a street in Palo Alto.' Sarabeth and Liz grew up across the street from each other, their girlhood friendship deepened by the tragedy of Sarabeth's mother's suicide when the girls were in high school. Packer offers their history in a brief prologue, and the first chapter of the novel finds Liz married with two teenaged children and contentedly immersed in her roles as wife and mother. Sarabeth, on the other hand, is still single, uncertain about her life and pursuing a career as a house stager, someone who creates the ambiance of cozy domesticity in homes people are trying to sell, a job that seems like a painful destiny for someone whose own childhood was interrupted by domestic tragedy. Of the two, Liz appears to have it all, but when her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren — the novel's most heartbreaking portrait — falls into the grip of adolescent depression, Liz's world falls apart. And so does Sarabeth's; Lauren's unhappiness brings Sarabeth dangerously near to the memory of her own mother, and her retreat from Liz is both cowardly and — this is Packer's generosity at work — completely understandable. The only thing that can drive old friends apart more surely than death is unhappiness, and it seems that Liz and Sarabeth's estrangement will separate them permanently. 'They all seemed irrevocably distant, the people she knew,' Sarabeth thinks, 'as far away as Earth was from the moon.' There are some novels that show us the 'other,' and in doing so expand our ideas about humanity. 'Songs Without Words' is a novel that shows us — tenderly, and with a full awareness of the precious dignity and indignity of human experience — ourselves. Carrie Brown's most recent novel is 'The Rope Walk.'" Reviewed by Carrie Brown, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A quiet narrative whose emotions, we come to realize, run deep and true....Commendably ambitious and ultimately rewarding." Kirkus Reviews
"As in The Dive From Clausen's Pier, Packer makes the ripples from one act so involving, you can't pull away." Good Housekeeping
"What's most impressive...is Packer's ability to set a story in the wealthy and beautiful suburbs of San Francisco and make her characters' suffering authentic." USA Today
"A novel has the potential not simply to hold up a mirror to our known experience but also to reflect the seemingly indecipherable tangle of our inner worlds." Los Angeles Times
"[A] close and careful look at the bonds of friendship, and the painful aftermath when a loved one follows the sad compulsion to end her own life." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[R]eaders will be pleased to find Packer's remarkable talent for characterization in the pages of her second novel." Charlotte Observer
About the Author
Ann Packer received a Great Lakes Book Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award for The Dive from Clausen's Pier, a national bestseller that has been translated into ten languages. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.
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